There’s a point here from the 2018 World Tour Finals round robin match between Djokovic and Marin Čilić. It starts at 14:29 in the video below. They’ve just played a tiebreak to decide the first set and this is the first point of the second, so you’re not expecting anything too remarkable. Djokovic hits a good return that pushes Čilić out to his forehand side. Now, when you’ve put your opponent on the defensive like this, you can reasonably expect a safe crosscourt reply, which Djokovic anticipates, parking himself a step to the right of the centerline. Well, Čilić decides to blast a forehand down the line that clips the outside of the sideline. Djokovic, visibly taken aback, can’t really sprint to the ball — so he takes one huge step, then launches himself into the air to take an even bigger stride. As he makes contact with the ball, his left foot screeches into a wicked slide (remember, this is a cement court). He’s doing a half-split as he strikes the backhand, which is so violent that Djokovic’s racket bangs into the court surface after his abbreviated follow-through. Somehow, he gets the ball crosscourt with decent depth.
Čilić keeps Djokovic under pressure with a really deep crosscourt backhand that Djokovic has to take early after the bounce. Novak’s subsequent reply is a bit shorter and more central than is ideal (but is by no means a bad shot considering the depth of Čilić’s backhand). Čilić murders this quasi-short ball with an inside-in forehand that lands close to the sideline, moving Djokovic from well behind the baseline on the ad side to even deeper water in his forehand corner. When the world number one ends his slide after returning Čilić’s forehand with a squash shot, he’s at least fifteen feet behind the baseline and is also outside the doubles alley. Look for yourself:
Court position does not get much more unfavorable than this, and Čilić senses his opportunity. He comes to net and dinks a half-volley short on the ad-side. The rationale here is obvious: he’s forcing Djokovic to cover the most distance possible, what with Novak halfway across the world in his deuce corner. With Djokovic so far out at sea, the gambit is high-percentage, and Čilić hits a good half-volley. (I wouldn’t call it great, but with your opponent way behind the baseline and way outside the sideline, you shouldn’t have to hit a great half-volley drop shot.) However, Djokovic anticipates Čilić’s shot, and he starts to sprint across the long diagonal before his opponent has even made contact with the ball. In seven massive, lightning-quick strides, Djokovic gets inside the service line. He launches himself into the air again and backhands the ball past Čilić, then lands with another shrieking slide.
This is my all-time favorite Djokovic point because of the incredibly lengthy sprint at the end, but the reason I write this is that I didn’t notice how amazing the initial backhand and movement were until I rewatched the point for the nth time (for no particular reason besides procrastinating on some work). Just listen to the crowd — there’s basically no oohs or aahs as Djokovic goes into Gumby mode for that first stretch backhand. At the risk of repeating myself, Djokovic’s style can take some getting used to before it can be totally understood. At least it does for me. I found myself wondering how many other backhands like the first one after the return he’s hit that practically defied the laws of physics but that I skimmed over upon first viewing. I’ll be going back down the rabbit hole.