Brain Game: Djokovic's Antidote to Medvedev's Deep Returning Is...
You can’t regularly serve and volley in today’s game.
The statement above is worth reading again because it needs to be the last time you ever see it in print. It’s a myth. The death of serve and volley in our sport is pure misconception, and Novak Djokovic may as well have put the final nail in the coffin of this delusional fallacy once and for all in the Rolex Paris Masters final on Sunday.
World No. 1, Djokovic, defeated No. 2, Daniil Medvedev 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 in two hours and 15 minutes minutes on the back of winning 19 of 22 serve and volley points. Djokovic won a stunning 86 per cent of his serve and volley points to completely throw a monkey wrench into the Russian’s monotonous baseline strategy of sticking the Serb in the backhand cage deep in the Ad court.
For the record, Djokovic served and volleyed 22 times - including once a second serve which he won - and also attempted another 17 serve and volley points that were a fault.
He wanted to serve and volley 39 times in a Masters 1000 final against the second-best player in the world. Nothing dead about that strategy.
Djokovic initially served and volleyed on the third point of the match, trailing 0/30 in the opening game. He lost that point and was broken soon after. He did win five of seven serve and volley points in the opening set but lost the set 6-4. The game plan was forming. The execution was improving. The mindset was patient.
Instead of abandoning the aggressive serve-and-volley play to focus on trying to dismantle Medvedev in baseline exchanges, Djokovic doubled down on serve and volley in set two, winning all 12 serve and volley points played. It’s worth noting that he also hit five faults that he wanted to serve and volley on in set two as well. Djokovic won two of three serve and volley points in set three as Medvedev unravelled early in the point. The constant forward pressure had finally paid off.
The net was Djokovic’s safe haven in the Paris final.
Net Points Played
- Djokovic = won 75% (27/36)
- Medvedev = won 69% (9/13)
Djokovic came to the net almost three times as often as Medvedev as he rocked the Russian in the critical 0-4 shot rally length.
Rally Length Won
- 0-4 Shots = Djokovic +19 (Djokovic 54 / Medvedev 35)
- 5-8 Shots = Djokovic +1 (Djokovic 23 / Medvedev 22)
- 9+ Shots = Djokovic -4 (Djokovic 17 / Medvedev 21)
Djokovic ended up +19 (54 won / 35 lost) in the short rallies up to four shots. This is where serve and volley reigned supreme. A key component of the Serb’s instant forays to the net was to avoid hitting his first volley deep, where Medvedev would enjoy another crack at a passing shot. Instead, Djokovic’s first volley was cleverly hit short in the court with angle, which was ideal considering Medvedev stands very deep in the court to return serve.
Our sport has recently entered into an era where players such as Medvedev are taking up extremely deep return positions. Their goal is to let the serve slow down to commit fewer return errors, while also allowing them to swing as hard as possible, making the return behave much more like a regular groundstroke than a blocking, abbreviated stroke. Djokovic showed time and time again in the final that serve and volley is the perfect antidote for that tactic.
Once rallies began in the Paris final, Medvedev attempted a copy/paste of the recent US Open final, which he won against Djokovic by overdosing on backhand-to-backhand exchanges. Djokovic hit 188 backhand groundstrokes in the Paris final and only 155 groundstroke forehands.
Medvedev was on course for a rinse and repeat of New York. Serve and volley came to the rescue for Djokovic.
Djokovic committed 12 backhand groundstroke errors and only hit one backhand groundstroke winner for the match. If he didn’t have serve and volley to constantly stay on the front foot and keep the points short, he would have had no way to short-circuit Medvedev’s incessant Ad court exchanges.
The Serb’s goose would surely be cooked in the absence of serve and volley.
Serve and volley gets little respect in today’s game. We gave up on it long ago, but it never gave up on us, constantly delivering strong win percentages. The No. 1 player in the world took it off life support in the Paris final and gave this “old school” pattern of play the love it thoroughly deserves. If anyone tells you that serve and volley doesn’t work, send them a link to Sunday's final.
Welcome back, old friend.