Here's Why Djokovic Dominates Tie-breaks
Novak Djokovic is 18-0 to start the 2020 season. Impressive. He has also won 17 of the past 18 tie-breaks he has played dating back to the 2019 Wimbledon final. Possibly even more impressive.
An Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers analysis of Djokovic’s dominance as the No. 1 player in the world reveals that his recent body of work has been rock solid, but his unwavering ability to finish what he started at the end of sets is from another world.
Djokovic sits atop the career Infosys ATP Stats Under Pressure Leaderboard. Tie-break performance is part of the overall metric, and Djokovic sits in 13th place with career tie-breaks won at 64.5 per cent. He has ratcheted that up to perfection mode in the first two months of this season.
The World No. 1 has played eight tie-breaks in 2020 and has won them all. His first match of the season at the ATP Cup was a 7-6(5), 7-6(6) victory over South Africa’s Kevin Anderson. The Serb saved a set point at 5/6 in the second-set tie-break and rolled from there. Djokovic then defeated Denis Shapovalov 4-6, 6-1, 7-6(4) in the quarter-finals and Rafael Nadal 6-2, 7-6(4) in the final to set the tie-break tone for January and February.
In the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships semi-final last week, Djokovic defeated Gael Monfils 2-6, 7-6(8), 6-1, coming back from 3/6 in the tie-break to save three consecutive match points and run away with the match in the third set.
So just how does Djokovic do it? How does the Super Serb play so even in a set with an opponent to get to a tie-break, then win 17 of 18 on the trot?
This jaw-dropping run started at the 2019 Wimbledon final, where Djokovic defeated Federer 7-6(5), 1-6, 7-6(4), 4-6, 13-12(3), with a 12-point tie-break played at 12-12 in the fifth set.
How Djokovic crafted his winning strategy in those three tie-breaks is the blueprint he employs for all of them. It’s about staying the course, playing the big points on his terms, trading baseline blows and not trying to pull a rabbit out of a hat or relying on spectacular shotmaking to cross the finish line.
Tie-breaks are about not missing, and making the opponent uncomfortable having to hit one more shot in a pattern of play that they don’t really want to be in. Turning the screws is what the five-time Indian Wells champion relies on the most in the big moments.
For example, the three tie-breaks in the Wimbledon final against Federer contained 33 points. The following breakdown should stop you in your tracks.
2019 Wimbledon Final: Three Tie-Breaks (33 points)
Forehand & Backhand Errors (excluding returns)
• Djokovic = 1
• Federer = 19
Djokovic committed just one solitary forehand groundstroke error leading 5-1 in the second set tie-break. As a stark comparison, Federer led 5-3 in the first set tie-break and committed four straight groundstroke errors. Overall Federer hit seven winners and committed 20 total errors in the three tie-breaks while Djokovic committed just five errors (four return) and collected just two winners.
That’s what lockdown looks like on a tennis court.
Outside of the tie-breaks, Federer won 13/15 points serving and volleying and 51/65 points approaching the net from a baseline position. The net was Federer’s wheelhouse. But in the 33 total points in all three tie-breaks, Federer won just one point at the net from two trips forward.
Twenty of the 33 points (61%) were contested with both Djokovic and Federer standing at the baseline. Djokovic won 16 of them. Eight rallies reached double digits and Djokovic won six.
Tie-breaks are all about fastening the hatches and putting the ball in play. Don’t beat yourself. Make the opponent tap out chasing shots at the extremities of their competence. Djokovic is in a class of his own right now and his perfect start to the season is a reflection of his perfect record in tie-breaks.
Editor's Note: Craig O'Shannessy is a former member of Novak Djokovic's coaching team.
This story was updated March 7 to correct an error in the fourth paragraph. Djokovic has played eight tie-breaks in 2020 (not 2019).