Brain Game

Why Novak Threw Out His Old Playbook Against Sinner

World No. 1 brought a very different battle plan to Sunday's Nitto ATP Finals title match
November 19, 2023
Novak Djokovic reaped the reward for a big tactical change against Jannik Sinner.
Corinne Dubreuil/ATP Tour
Novak Djokovic reaped the reward for a big tactical change against Jannik Sinner. By Craig O'Shannessy

Play to win.

Novak Djokovic defeated Jannik Sinner 6-3, 6-3 in the Nitto ATP Finals title match on Sunday by updating his game plan and mentality.

“I had to step it up,” Djokovic said post-match when talking about his dominant victories in the semi-final against Carlos Alcaraz and final against Sinner. “I had to win the matches and not wait for them to hand me the victory. I think I have tactically played different today than I have in the group stage against Jannik,” Djokovic said.

So what did Djokovic do differently? He stopped grinding with his backhand and let his forehand be the star of the show from the back of the court. Djokovic hit more backhands than forehands against Sinner in the group stage, but that flipped in the final, where his forehand punched a hole right through Sinner’s potent baseline game.

Djokovic Groundstrokes (excluding returns, volleys & overheads)
• Forehands = 101 (3 winners/11 errors/extracted 22 errors from Sinner)
• Backhands = 76 (1 winner/8 errors/extracted 10 errors from Sinner)

The writing was on the wall early on. With Djokovic leading 3-1, 15-0 serving, he had hit 19 forehand groundstrokes and committed just one error. He had collected a winner, but most importantly, six of those forehands immediately extracted an error from Sinner. Djokovic’s average forehand groundstroke speed for the match to date was significantly higher than Sinner's.

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Average Forehand Groundstroke Speed (First Four Games)
• Djokovic = 138 km/h (86 mph)
• Sinner = 119 km/h (74 mph)

Djokovic was uncorking forehand after forehand, while Sinner spent most of his time defending with his forehand on the run. Their baseline performance in the opening set could not have been more different.

Baseline Points Won Set 1
• Djokovic = Won 65% (15/23)
• Sinner = Won 33% (9/27)

Sinner enjoyed a lot of success in their round-robin match by locking Djokovic in the “backhand cage” and making him repeatedly hit backhands cross-court. Djokovic ensured this match would be different by hitting more run-around forehands in the Ad court and trading more shots through the Deuce court. Djokovic hit 17 run-around forehands for the match, not coughing up a single error. He hit one forehand winner and extracted five groundstroke errors (three forehand/two backhand) from Sinner.

Djokovic’s forehand got off to a flyer at the beginning of set two. He broke Sinner to love in the opening game, making 11 forehands in the game. Sinner committed three forehand errors and one backhand error in the game. Every one of those errors came from a Djokovic forehand.

Djokovic won 10 straight points to begin set two as his serve and forehand proved unstoppable. Djokovic’s “play to win” mentality also washed over to his serve. He only dropped three points for the match on his first serve (won 29/32) and only lost five on his second serve (won 9/14). The Serb crushed 13 aces and saved both break points he faced for the match. Sinner tried to venture forward to the net to win points but got shut down there as well, only winning three of eight.

This was a statement win for Djokovic after losing to Sinner in a third-set tie break in the round robin stage. It’s also an exclamation point on another stellar season that saw him go 55-6 and collect seven titles.

In the final, Djokovic nailed the game plan, the execution, and the attitude required to overcome Sinner on his home turf. Djokovic always impresses with his movement, technique, and warrior-like attitude. With this victory, his tactical adjustment and the ability to put the opponent first set him apart.

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