5 things we learned from the first leg of the Adria Tour

The Adria Tour’s first leg has finished and the Tour moves on in a few weeks to the second leg in Croatia. Here’s what we learned from its start in Belgrade.

The first leg of the Adria Tour concluded this Sunday with Dominic Thiem remaining undefeated throughout his four matches and emerging victorious, beating Filip Krajinovic in the final. It was significant as 3 of the current top 10 players featured in this exhibition tournament. Here, we look at the five things that we learned so far:

1. Grigor Dimitrov’s New Serve

Grigor Dimitrov’s new service motion was first seen in a practice set that he played against Djokovic on Thursday. And he then used it in his 3 matches, thus meaning that this one is a permanent change from his old service motion. His new motion is an abbreviated preparation with his racquet remaining horizontal to his body and not dropping down like it did in the past.

It was fitting that this was seen first against Djokovic, who himself had changed to an abbreviated motion in early 2018 before ditching it for his current motion. Dimitrov’s serve looked okay against his three opponents in this leg of the tour but it would be fascinating to see how it holds up in the big moments when competitive tennis returns.

2. Alexander Zverev’s troubles on serve continue

In the Australian Open 2020, Alexander Zverev made his first grand slam semifinal, eventually losing to Dominic Thiem in 4 tight sets. Interestingly, in his six matches in Melbourne, Zverev served only 20 double faults, at an average of just over 3 double faults in a match. That was a clear improvement from 2019 when he served a total of 388 double faults over 67 matches, which is an average of just under 6 double faults per match.

It seemed Zverev had turned a corner with regards to his serve. In Belgrade however, the familiar double faults were back on display. Zverev’s first match against Krajinovic was riddled with that. In the first set, the German served three double faults in one game. Against Djokovic on Sunday, Zverev served a total of 6 double faults. Even though it was an exhibition match, it is not good news for Zverev that his serve still seems to be malfunctioning during matches. It is perhaps the lockdown situation due to which he couldn’t work on it as much as he would have liked but either way the improvement that was needed in 2019 still isn’t there in 2020.

Related Story: Breaking down the surface diversity among top players in tennis

3. A return strategy on Clay different from the past.

In Belgrade, we saw the top players employing a strategy that seems to be counter-intuitive. Almost all the players stayed way back from the baseline while returning serve. Thiem seemed to be varying his positions a bit more but even he stayed mostly behind the baseline for the return of serve. In fact, what is even more surprising is that most players stood somewhat closer to the baseline on returning the first serve but went way back, near the linesmen to return second serves.

This could be down to two reasons:

(1) Staying closer to the baseline on the first serve allows them to cut off the angles and doesn’t allow the server to go for the slice serve out wide to take the returner out of position.

(2) Staying back on the second serve allows them to take big cuts at the return and also allows them to return more serves in general.

Again, this tournament was just an exhibition and I will hasten to suggest that this might not be the case when the Clay season returns but given that this was the first time in months that the top players have faced each other, it’s logical to assume that this strategy will continue. It should be obvious by now that this is inspired by Rafael Nadal’s return strategy on clay and one that has paid huge dividends for the 12-time French Open champion.

4. The Drop Shot to beat Nadal?

Rafael Nadal has lost only twice at Roland Garros. One of those defeats was to Novak Djokovic. Interestingly, Djokovic hit 13 drop shots in that straight-set win over Nadal. While on the surface that might not sound much, it was already more than double of the attempted drop shots in both 2014 and 2012 finals against Nadal. Add to that, Djokovic enjoyed definite success with the drop shot, winning 77% of the points in which he played it.

Once again, it might be premature to draw any conclusions from an exhibition tournament but Djokovic had been playing the drop shot more frequently in Dubai as well, thus meaning it’s something he has been working on.

Nadal’s other big challenger, Dominic Thiem, is doing something similar. In the match against Lajovic, that Thiem won after saving three match points, it was interesting to see a lot of serve and volley from Thiem, no doubt intended to take advantage of his opponent’s deep return position. Add to that, Thiem also played quite a few drop shots in his matches, although that could also partly be to shorten the rallies for the crowd. In any case, it’s fascinating to see the top players try this. Hopefully, we will see more of this when the tour resumes.

5. Players want the Crowd

The top players play for the spectators as much as they play for themselves. We heard Federer earlier this year saying that he wouldn’t like to play without spectators. This tour was more in line with how other players felt about the issue too. Djokovic’s emotional interview at the end was a clear sign of how much he wanted to play in front of his home town again.

Thiem also discussed after winning the tournament about how they want to give the fans a good show. It’s clear that the top players prefer playing with crowds and as such, with the distancing rules that exist around the globe, it’s unlikely we will get more of this type of crowd-filled competitive tennis involving the best players anytime soon.

Next: Detailing the controversy around the US Open's 1-coach policy

If no crowd matches are going to be the norm this year, it would be difficult to convince the top players to play— a challenge that the USTA faces now as it prepares to host the US Open.