Novak Djokovic has consistently been a dominant force in men’s tennis since winning his first ATP tour event in 2006. He is one of the most technically gifted players on the circuit, a major contributing factor in maintaining his place at the top of the game. His forehand is a part of his game he has worked hard to improve, and its success has helped take him to that next level.
It is not that Djokovic’s forehand could ever be considered as below par at any point in his early career. It was just that his backhand was so strong that his forehand was sometimes seen as a weaker shot by comparison. His technique at the time saw him hit a relatively flat forehand, with his elbow close to the body. Today, the forehand of Novak Djokovic is a fearsome weapon, one delivered with fluidity, power and top spin.
Novak Djokovic uses the semi western grip on his forehand side. This grip is one of the most common forehand grips used on the pro tour. It allows a player to play aggressive forehands with top spin, providing greater margin of error in clearing the net.
Novak Djokovic has a versatile forehand, where different follow throughs allows him to impart different levels of spin on the ball. His forehand is delivered with consistent depth to keep his opponent pinned back on the baseline, as Djokovic probes for the chance to hit the decisive rally winner. The foundation of his forehand, his grip, has not changed from the early days of his career.
The Semi-Western Forehand Grip
The semi-western forehand grip has become one of the most employed grips on the pro tour today. It is a grip which allows you to generate both power and top spin. This grip sees the knuckle of the index finger placed on bevel four on the racket for a right hander such as Novak Djokovic (source). The index finger is then slightly split from the other fingers on the racket.
This is a grip which has become more popular on the pro tour as racket heads became larger and players looked to move their hand further down the racket shaft. The heavy top spin which can be generated using a semi-western grip allows players to use this top spin without having to concede power. The spin subsequently gives them more breathing room over the net while still giving them the chance to flatten out the shot when required.
There are a few pros and cons of using this grip.
- Generates more top spin on the forehand
- Higher margin of error in clearing the net
- Good for returning higher bouncing balls
- Can react late to a ball and still rip aggressively through the shot
- Harder to switch between grips
- Tougher to hit low bouncing balls
- Can be harder to hit a flatter shot
- Can feel awkward when learning as grip does not feel so natural
Practice will iron out most issues created by the potential disadvantages of using this grip. As it is one of the most common grips used, one used by an elite player like Novak Djokovic, the pros must significantly outweigh the cons.
The following video is a good illustration of the semi-western forehand grip:
Getting in to Position
As with all the top pros, Novak Djokovic has excellent footwork, allowing him to arrive in the best possible position to return his opponent’s shot. His split step prior to moving toward the ball is relatively wide, sometimes wider than shoulder length. For Djokovic, maintaining a low center of gravity helps make his movement to either side more fluid.
Djokovic keeps his left hand lightly on the throat of the racket as he goes in to his back swing, while keeping a semi-open stance. This stance assists his balance and allows him to generate rapid racket head speed. Djokovic only releases the left hand off the throat of the racket when his hands are above shoulder height.
Keeping both hands on the racket to such a late stage helps Djokovic perfect a unit turn. This complete shoulder and hips turn acts as a coil, letting Djokovic unleash more energy on his swing, and in turn more power on his forehand. It is this rotational approach which helps build racket speed (source).
As Djokovic swings the racket back, his semi western grip means the closed racket face is pointing towards the ground. However, just before Djokovic starts his downward swing he rotates his wrist so that the face of his racket is now pointing directly at the back wall of the court, in a vertical position. At this point around 90% of his weight will be placed through his right leg, before being transferred to the left leg as he pushes forward and up through his legs as he completes the forehand.
The Forward Swing and Contact
As Djokovic begins his downward swing, the racket face remains closed and pointing to the ground through his semi-western grip. His elbow stays away from the body, helping him stay relaxed through the shot and generate power. The swing takes the racket below the flight of the ball.
To impart top spin the swing is low to high, brushing up against the ball on contact. The Djokovic swing is not particularly steep, almost level at the point of contact. This helps him hit the ball with topspin while still powering the ball through the court to his opponent.
As Djokovic uncoils from his unit turn the shoulders and hips rotate, ending square on as he strikes the ball. His forearm and wrist have also fully rotated, while the head remains steady and the eyes fully focused on the ball. Using his semi-western grip, Djokovic now strikes the ball slightly further in front of his body than he may once have done in order to hit big while still allowing him to flatten the ball out and retain control of the shot.
By making contact with the ball earlier than he used to Djokovic can be more aggressive in his shot making. He is able to dominate his opponent and be more clinical in rallies. It is such slight adjustments and attention to detail which can make such a huge difference at this level of the game. He also now takes the racket head back higher, ensuring he makes full use of the rotation of his hips and shoulders to generate the power on his forehand side.
The Follow Through
We have mentioned how versatile the Djokovic forehand has become, and the follow through highlights this point. After contact with the ball Djokovic pulls his racket up and across his body toward the shoulder. This elevation of the racket from its low to high swing is an indicator of the top spin imparted on the ball.
However, the final position of the racket is not always the same. Djokovic employs three varied types of follow through, and mixes them up during a match perhaps more than most other pros on the tour. This can make his forehand look fairly spectacular at times.
One follow through you will often see has the racket head come across the body and finish by his left shoulder. This follow through allows Djokovic to keep the ball flatter and also allows him to be more aggressive in the shot. The position of the left arm is important in maintaining balance and retaining control of the forehand.
When Djokovic needs a little more security on his forehand he will look to impart more top spin. In this instance his racket will finish above the shoulder in the follow through. This allows room for more net clearance and, although not necessarily a defensive forehand, it is one he is likely to use to maintain a rally and grind out the point. Again, as with all his forehands, the left arm plays a pivotal role for his balance and control.
Like many of the best players in the world, Novak Djokovic will use a reverse follow through if he wants to impart even more top spin on the ball. To do this his low to high swing is steeper and the racket head tilts 180 degrees as it continues upward. As the name suggests, the follow through sees the racket finish above his right shoulder, the opposite side to the vast majority of his forehands.
The reverse follow through is a good option when scrambling to reach the ball or when forced wide by your opponent. The extra top spin allows Djokovic more time to recover and get back in position for the next shot. He can also use the reverse follow through swing to create good angles and ensure his opponent will face a heavily bouncing ball from the top spin generated.
The video below show the Djokovic forehand in full flow:
The Forehand Slice
While the penetrating forehand winner grabs all the attention, the forehand slice is not to be overlooked. Mostly viewed as a defensive recovery shot, allowing you to recover position on court, it can still be used to strike a spectacular winner.
Quite often a player is on the stretch when playing a forehand slice. They will be looking to hit down and under the ball to generate backspin. This does not require the full unit turn, as the slice is not about power but control. A player such as Djokovic will use his wrist to impart spin and direction on the ball.
While a sliced forehand will take a lot of the pace off the ball, the backspin will keep the ball low over the net. This keeps the bounce of the ball low, making it difficult for your opponent to get the racket head under the ball and generate powerful topspin returns.
Does Djokovic Change Grip for the Backhand?
While holding the racket in his semi-western forehand grip, Djokovic will make the grip adjustment as he moves toward the backhand side. Novak Djokovic employs a double handed backhand, and the dominant left hand uses a semi-western grip. The right hand on the base of the racket switches to a continental grip. Using this method Djokovic unleashes one of the best topspin backhand drives on the pro tour.
Novak Djokovic’s forehand is one of the best in the pro game. It has become a weapon to be feared, a forehand which can produce devastating winners from all angles of the court. How much work has gone in to improving his forehand is something to be admired. His forehand has gone from an area opponents may have targeted as a weaker part of his game, to one to try and avoid at all costs.
The foundation of his forehand has always been the semi-western grip. The closed racket head resulting from this grip allows him to whip through the ball and generate heavy top spin on his forehand drives. This combines with the coil of the unit turn on his back swing, allowing for the rotation of the body which sees him unleash tremendous power through the racket head. It all adds up to a technically superb forehand.
Not only does the semi-western grip serve Djokovic’s forehand drive well, but it allows him to deliver angled shots, sliced returns and forehand volleys too. He has become the complete player on the forehand side, complementing his equally devastating two-handed backhand.