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Djokovic v Dimitrov: Paris Final Recap
slice backhands—forehand setups
Novak Djokovic defeated Grigor Dimitrov 6/4 6/3 in the final of the Paris Masters 1000 on Sunday. It was Djokovic’s 40th Masters 1000 title (58 finals). He now leads the H2H with Dimitrov 12-1.
Both men had come through tough draws and long matches in the previous rounds, with Djokovic requiring a medical time-out to treat back pain in his semifinal win over Rublev. Dimitrov wasn’t without his own bruises and had been playing with a heavily strapped leg since the quarterfinals.
“He’s [Dimitrov] hit his forehand very well this week, and indeed in recent months. You would think if he’s going to be successful today he’s going to have to hit it better than ever.”
— Tennis TV in the opening game
Dimitrov had been aggressive with his court position and forehand all throughout the Asian and indoor swing, amassing a 14-4 record which included wins over Alcaraz, Rune, Khachanov, Jarry, Musetti (x2), Medvedev, Bublik, Hurkacz, and Tsitsipas.
He’d done an excellent job rushing players with that wing, and had looked comfortable on the quicker indoor surfaces with his eastern grip and abbreviated/outside setup.
But right from the opening game of the final he was spraying errors from that side—particularly when he had to take some steps to his right.
At the same time, Djokovic was spraying his own errors from his backhand wing—a shot that had been loose in the first set of his semifinal match (13 unforced errors) against Rublev. He was looking to dictate more from that side than his forehand today I thought, and despite starting a little sluggish from the back, the 2023 version of Djokovic often makes up for it with other areas of his game:
But it was clear that Dimitrov was trying to target the Djokovic forehand; he directed 67% of first serves out wide on the deuce court to the Djokovic forehand, and 53% on the Ad court (and perhaps went wide on the Ad-side in the hope of using a plus-one ball into Djokovic’s forehand). He was also using biting, low slices to force Djokovic to generate height and power on his own; a good play in my book.
But Dimitrov wasn’t executing with his forehand consistently enough. He was spraying balls, whilst Djokovic’s forehand was a rock.
“I think you’re right to point out that H2H. All through this week Dimitrov’s looked unshackled, he’s looked loose and free, but today he hasn’t.”
—Tennis TV Commentary
Here’s a crude chart comparing every forehand miss and winner from Djokovic’s and Dimitrov’s topspin rally balls in the first set.1 Djokovic is left:
In fact, Djokovic didn’t miss a rally ball forehand until 5-3 Deuce in the first set. 44 points in a row of error-free tennis from that side in a Masters 1000 final.
This is what it took from Dimitrov to finally force an error from that wing:
The next miss came at 5-4 30-15, which was the point of the match: a grueling and cagey 33-shot rally that ended with Djokovic’s forehand clipping the tape and barely dropping on his side.
Here’s a look at the two setups. Djokovic has less to undo into contact and I think that helps him with timing, especially on the run and generally when under pressure. Perhaps the occasion of a Masters final against Djokovic had something to do with Dimitrov’s less-than-stellar performance from that wing.
The 5-4 game was also Dimitrov’s best tennis tactically. He was mostly slicing with the backhand, staying patient, moving the ball around without taking too much risk, and forcing Djokovic to get low and generate his own pace. If it wasn’t for the Serb’s improved serve—and Dimitrov’s lack of execution with a slice or two—he may have broken back there. But it was the game that at least drew 2 forehand errors from Djokovic.
I think the slice against Djokovic, especially on a low-bouncing court like Paris, is a good play for a couple of reasons:
It neutralizes Djokovic’s ability to attack with his backhand up the line. It’s harder for him to flatten it out and hurt players with his counterpunching ability.
If you can slice it short, it gets Djokovic slicing, which then opens up the chance for Dimitrov to look for more forehands and play more offense with Djokovic closer to the baseline.
You’ll probably miss less yourself. It’s easier for Dimitrov to trade slices than it is to trade topspin backhands against the greatest two-hander of all time.
It’s a little more efficient in terms of energy conservation, assuming you hit it well enough so that you don’t get dictated around the court too much.
It’s a higher percentage shot for Dimitrov to change direction on. I’d wager he can slice down the line with better consistency—especially under pressure—than he could playing topspin down the line.
Dan Evans showcased the blueprint against Djokovic (who was admittedly far from his best in this encounter) when they faced off in Monte Carlo a few years ago:
The first set rap sheet:
And as had been a theme all week, Djokovic was happy to take on the crowds taunts and boos as he sat down on the changeover:
Dimitrov started to loosen up a little in the second. His forehand was more dangerous, but his first-serve percentage was 44% for the set, and I felt he didn’t commit to slicing enough with the backhand. He would end up making 9 errors off his topspin backhand in the second set alone (for 0 winners).
I just don’t see the tradeoff here. By my count that made his backhand stats around 20 errors for 0 winners.
He needed to make it physical, keep it low, and make Novak work for long points. Yeah, you have to grind out back-to-back-to-back exchanges of defense and cagey change of direction, but it’s your best hope, especially when you move as well as Dimitrov. Djokovic’s backhand did come online as the match wore on—perhaps Dimitrov’s topspin backhands aided that—and I think he finished with 6 or 7 winners from that side, with two coming in the last game.
Here’s one from Djokovic, off a Dimitrov topspin backhand that sits up nice and juicy near the waist, right where ND likes it2:
And here are the second set forehand performances. Djokovic is left:
That concludes the Masters 1000s for the year. A look back at this year’s champions:
And looking ahead to the ATP Finals that begin on November 12. The eight man field is set:
I’ll be back with some analysis from the ATP Finals.
See you in the comments.
Doesn’t include returns of serve.
Djokovic hit one backhand winner off a Dimitrov slice when Dimitrov approached the net on it.