Shanghai Masters: Borna Coric’s progress shows why Novak Djokovic’s playing style is the best template for success in tennis

When you see a new player’s game, what is the first thought that comes to your mind?

For a lot of people, it’s hard to push away the first instinct of associating the newcomer’s style to that of some other player they’ve seen in the past. The temptation to compare a young gun with a veteran we’ve grown up seeing is always irresistibly strong. As a species we humans live for comparisons, and nowhere is that reflected more vividly than in our sport-watching labours.

Novak Djokovic (left) shakes hands with Borna Coric after the Shanghai Masters final. AP Photo

Novak Djokovic (left) shakes hands with Borna Coric after the Shanghai Masters final. AP Photo

When Borna Coric faced Novak Djokovic in the Shanghai Masters final on Sunday, we didn’t even have to cast our minds far away to make the association. Coric’s playing style reminded us of someone, and that someone was right across the net.

Now this wasn’t the first time we were seeing Coric play, and it wasn’t even the first time we were seeing him play against Djokovic. But this was the first time we were seeing them battle it out on a hardcourt. And it was also the first time we were seeing the ‘new Coric’ — the one who steps into the court and attacks the ball — make an appearance in the matchup.

The result? A thoroughly uncanny display of what it looks like when a player competes against his mirror image. The Croat and the Serb were almost indistinguishable; the return and backhand in particular were so similar that sometimes the only way to tell them apart was by identifying the color of each player’s shirt.

If you’ve been following Coric’s career, you’d know that this was no accident. In his early years he was so inspired by Djokovic that he ended up modeling his game on the Serb’s. He reaffirmed as much ahead of the Shanghai final: “I play similar to him (Djokovic),” he said at the press conference after defeating Roger Federer in the semi-final. “When I was a kid I was looking up to him and I was always trying to play like him.”

So there we have it: the decade-long Big 3 era has yielded a tangible product, in the form of Coric. He may not be nearly as effective or successful as Djokovic, at least not right now, but there’s no denying that his game is almost a carbon copy of the 14-time Slam champion’s.

That begs an important question though: where are the Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal incarnates? Surely these two have had just as big an impact on young tennis minds as Djokovic, and should have had their own clones by now?

I know what you’re thinking: that Federer already has a mini-me, in the form of Grigor Dimitrov. The Bulgarian was called ‘Baby Fed’ for the longest time, and anyone who first saw his backhand swing and forehand preparation was convinced that he had deliberately molded his game on Federer’s.

But the man himself has never corroborated that. “I never wanted to copy anyone,” Dimitrov had said back in 2014 during an ATP interview, while also revealing that as a kid he was inspired just as much by Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi as by Federer.

In any case, the Federer-Dimitrov comparisons fall a little flat now that we’ve seen more. Dimitrov may play a couple of shots similar to Federer, but the entire foundation of his game is starkly different from the Swiss’. Federer likes to take the ball early and vary the pace of his shots, while Dimitrov likes to stand back and trade heavy, one-dimensional groundstrokes with his opponents. The two couldn’t be more different in terms of their mentality either; Federer is all attack, Dimitrov is (mostly) all defence.

Aside from Dimitrov, it’s tough to think of any other player who can invite legitimate comparisons with Federer’s style. Richard Gasquet was given the ‘Baby Federer’ moniker for a while early on in his career, but that never stuck — mainly because the only thing similar between Federer and Gasquet is that they both have one-handed backhands. Everything else is vastly different, sometimes painfully so.

And Rafael Nadal? At the height of the Fedal rivalry many believed that the Spaniard’s game was more easily reproducible than Federer’s, because of how strongly it was predicated on discipline. But that has proven to be far from the truth; in the 13 years since Nadal first won the French Open, no player has even come close to successfully imitating his style.

Dominic Thiem, Jack Sock and Ryan Harrison are able to generate a lot of topspin, but their consistency is not nearly the same as Nadal’s. Pablo Carreno Busta and Diego Schwartzman can hit consistent groundstrokes, but their weight of shot is not even in the same ballpark as the 17-time Slam champion.

Nadal’s leftiness does make it even harder; there are some things that can only come if you are a southpaw. The wicked angles and swerving motion that are such an important feature of Nadal’s game are always going to be very difficult for a right-hander to incorporate. Those unique banana shots wouldn’t be quite as effective coming from a right-hander’s racquet, and therefore are less likely to be fine-tuned during practice. To truly emulate Nadal’s style, not only do you have to be as physically strong as him and hit the ball as hard as him (both tough enough propositions already), but you also have to hope to God that you are born with a dominant left side.

The problem with imitating Federer similarly dates back to a player’s birth. You are either born with the Swiss’ unique combination of deft touch, relentless aggression and strategic mind, or you’re not. A player can be taught how to hit a backhand like him, the way Dimitrov was, but he can’t be taught how to take that backhand on the rise every single time.

So yes, Federer and Nadal are such freaks of nature that it is almost impossible for any young player to mirror their style on the court. But Djokovic is a freak of nature too; his elastic movement and outrageous flexibility have been the subject of several glowing eulogies over the years. How then do we have a living and breathing ‘Baby Djokovic’ already? And not just any Baby Djokovic either, but one who is good enough to reach Masters finals at 21?

The answer, I believe, lies in what makes Djokovic the player that he is. Yes, he can do a lot of things on the court that nobody else can. But unlike Federer and Nadal, Djokovic’s feats of inimitable genius only come out when he is pushed to the brink, when he knows nothing else will do. For the vast majority of his matches, he relies instead on executing the basics to perfection. Outlasting his opponents through sheer mundane consistency is what gives Djokovic his day-to-day wins.

I’ve said this a lot of times in the past, and I’ll say it again: Djokovic’s base level of play is higher than that of any player we’ve ever seen. His shots almost never break down mid-match. He doesn’t take the ball supremely early like Federer does, or with a unique bolo-like swing the way Nadal does, so his margin for error is considerably higher than that of his legendary peers. He can afford to mistime the ball a little, or be a tad late on the ball; even when he does either of those things, he still manages to send it back over the net.

The Serb has such an infallible solidity to his technique that he can sleepwalk through a match and still end up the winner. Prior to 2011 he actually did that on many occasions, and he was still good enough to be a perennial top 3 player. It was only when greatness came knocking that Djokovic started pulling out that little bit extra. That flexibility we keep talking about? That’s the thing that takes him from being ‘just’ a great player to one of the greatest of all time.

In that respect, Djokovic’s game doesn’t seem impossible to replicate. It takes a lot of practice and hard work, sure; you can’t master technique by waltzing through your training sessions. It also takes a lot of discipline; you can’t outlast your opponent by going for the kill every half-chance you get. You need to be fit, quick, consistent and patient all at the same time, and you also need to correctly recognise the moments at which to pull the trigger.

If you do all of that, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t at least look like Djokovic on the court. And as Coric has proven this past year, if you look like Djokovic, that’s pretty much half the job done. The Croat has climbed up the rankings dramatically in 2018, and has started challenging for many of the big titles. In addition to reaching the Shanghai final this week, he also reached the Indian Wells semi-final back in March, and defeated Federer on grass to win the Halle trophy in June. That’s a rather impressive CV already.

What’s even more striking is that Coric is not the only one to reap the rewards of consciously adopting Djokovic’s style of play. Earlier this year, we saw Hyeon Chung, another promising youngster, use the Djokovic Template to good effect. He reached the Australian Open semi-final, besting Djokovic himself in a high-quality battle of attrition during that run; many said at the time that Chung had ‘out-Djokovic-ed’ Djokovic.

Just like Djokovic and now Coric, Chung’s game is based on quick court coverage, all-round solidity and a strong return. And just like Coric, the young Korean has the results to show for it already.

It is perhaps a little unfair on players like Coric and Chung for us to constantly compare them with champions like Djokovic. But as we’ve learned over the years, comparisons are inevitable in a pursuit as human as sport. And as we’ve also learned, mostly in this year, having a game that’s comparable to Djokovic’s is far from the worst thing that could happen to your career.

There are some things — like the reflex return of serve, the body contortions and the clutch play — that will always separate Djokovic from the rest. But for everything else, young players now have a tried and tested model that they can try and follow.

The Novak Djokovic Template is a sure-shot recipe for tennis success. And it could also possibly be the base for all future evolutions in the sport.

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Updated Date: Oct 15, 2018 16:53 PM

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