There isn’t a better player in the clutch than Novak Djokovic. We take a look at three moments in his 17 Grand Slam victories that show why he’s the best in the biggest moments.
Tennis is a cruel sport. It doesn’t reward dominance as much as it rewards consistency. A player may win more points than his opponent but might still ultimately lose the match if his opponent played the key points better. Key points simply include breakpoints, game points in a tight service game, setpoints, tiebreaks, etc. As such, winning key points is what every player aspires to do. Of course, it’s not possible to win every key point but the focus is always to maximize it.
Novak Djokovic has won 17 Grand Slams in his storied career, many of them coming at a time when two of his greatest rivals are still playing the game at the top level. To win as many slams in as intense competition as that requires one to be mentally strong, having a clear plan on what to do in the key points, and then having the composure and the ability to execute that plan.
Djokovic is one of the best strategists in the game. His use of data analytics to optimize his game in recent times has been well-documented. Mental strength is not something that we can objectively define, yet all the greats of the game are mentally strong. You don’t win 17 slams without being mentally strong.
The main question then is, how can we say that Djokovic is the best player in such moments? For this, we take 5 important metrics. The first one is their career break point conversion, the second one is their percentage of breakpoints saved, the third one is their percentage of tiebreaks saved, the fourth one is the percentage of deciding sets won and the fifth one is the number of matches won/lost from matchpoints.
Thankfully, the ATP tour lists the first four of these metrics and defines it as the “Under Pressure” rating of a player. Djokovic is at the top and with a healthy lead of almost 6 points. Adding the number of matches won/lost from match points to that rating, Djokovic is a healthy +12 in that category, with 15 matches won from matchpoints up and only 3 matches lost from matchpoints down. It takes his lead even higher in those metrics over Nadal, Sampras, and Federer.
But sometimes, pure numbers don’t convince everyone. Hence, I have decided to take three matches in three grand slams to specifically show why Djokovic might be the best player in the Big points.
Case #1: Djokovic vs Tsonga – Roland Garros 2012
Novak Djokovic faced Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarterfinals of the 2012 French Open. Djokovic had just come off a tight 5-setter against Andreas Seppi in the previous rounds. Djokovic started well and took the opening set 6-1. Tsonga then battled back to win the next 2 sets and then brought up two match points in the 10th game. Djokovic however, made first serve on both the points and finished them with winners.
Tsonga again brought up two more match points in the 12th game. Djokovic this time, missed his first serve but then served a 105mph second serve down the T, and after an extended rally, Tsonga netted a forehand after being cramped by Djokovic’s previous shot. On the second match point, Djokovic again made the first serve and this time, took control of the rally and finished it with an impressive smash. Djokovic held on and then took the tiebreaker and then the fifth set with relative ease.
It was a striking example of the world’s best player under huge pressure against a very strong player with a vocal crowd in his support and still coming up with the right answers at the right points—A quality that has served Djokovic well throughout his career.
Case #2: Djokovic vs Nadal – Wimbledon 2018
Novak Djokovic faced Rafael Nadal in the semifinals in Wimbledon 2018. The Serbian was coming off a poor run of form in the past 18 months while Nadal had won his 11th French Open earlier that year and was 35-2 for the season until that match. The battle between the two titans was the second match on center court, following the first semifinal between John Isner and Kevin Anderson which finished 26-24 in the fifth set.
The roof was closed for this encounter and would continue to remain closed when the players came out the following day to finish the match—a decision that would prove to be controversial in the days to come.
After being one set-all, Djokovic and Nadal were locked in a 3rd set tiebreaker. The pendulum swung either way until Nadal mustered up his first set point with a forehand drop shot that caught Djokovic napping. The Serb however got out of that with a strong first serve, forcing a return error out of Nadal. Nadal got a second set point when he unleashed an inside out forehand that caught the line. Djokovic saved it again, this time with a drop shot of his own.
Nadal got a third set point when he finished an extended rally with yet another forehand drop shot. Djokovic saved it again with a strong serve that forced a forehand return error out of Nadal. Djokovic gained his first set point when Nadal missed a backhand return but he duly missed the return in the next point.
He gained another set point when a Nadal drop shot, this time, was not as immaculate. Djokovic chased it down and unleashed a cross-court backhand winner. He converted this set point when his backhand down the line, found its mark and forced an error out of Nadal. Djokovic had saved 3 set points and snatched the set away from Nadal.
In the deciding 5th set, Djokovic faced 5 breakpoints. He made first serves on all 5 of them. 3 of them were service winners or forced errors on the return. 1 was a cross-court forehand passing shot winner and the other was a backhand down the line that forced an error out of Nadal.
Djokovic hadn’t faced a tougher match in Wimbledon in over 4 years and once again, he produced his best tennis when it mattered the most. It was the finest example of Big point play from a Big match player.
Case #3: Djokovic vs Federer – Wimbledon 2019
Grand Slam finals are more often than not very close contests, especially when it is between two of the greatest players ever to play the game. The 2019 Wimbledon final wasn’t a high-quality affair by any standards. Both players, well past their best days, focussed more on holding their serves comfortably. As such, the tiebreaks were an important factor in this match.
There were 3 tiebreakers and they decided which player would take the trophy. Federer won more points, broke Djokovic more times, won more games, had more winners to unforced error ratio, and still lost the match. It all comes down to how they played the Big points. In the three tiebreakers that ensued, a total of 33 points were played. Federer made 11 unforced errors in those 33 points. Djokovic made 0.
Federer held two match points on his serve. Federer missed the first with a forehand error and Djokovic saved the second with a forehand passing shot. In the key points, Djokovic once again came up clutch, entering into a zone where he simply doesn’t miss. Federer couldn’t live with him in the key points and Djokovic stole the trophy away from Federer’s grasp.
Bonus: In the Australian Open 2020 final, Djokovic was down 2 sets to 1 and was facing breakpoint. It was a virtual match point considering how well Thiem was playing at that moment. Djokovic served wide to Thiem’s backhand and then serve and volleyed, seeing Thiem’s deep returning position. It worked. Djokovic saved the breakpoint, flicked a switch, and then went on to win the title.
Simply enough, there’s not a more clutch player than Novak Djokovic in tennis right now.