Training with Novak

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Hall of Fame
Training with Novak


Hitting with the World’s #1 is no Djok

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Eric Butorac
is the ATP Player Council president and an accomplished doubles specialist. Eric’s tennis journey started in a small Minnesota town and has taken him to tennis’ top level circuit. His story has been in some ways cliche, at times unbelievable, and for many quite unexpected. Here is the fifth in a series of accounts shared by Eric.


Training with Novak

I had just lost a tight match in the third round of the 2015 US Open to Jean-Julien Rojer and Horia Tecau. They would go on to be the number-one team in the world that year. I was in the back corner of the locker room. The TV in my area was tuned to the Grandstand court, so clearly someone had been following our match.

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Scott Lipsky and Eric Butorac competing at the 2015 US Open. (Photo: Getty Images)

I get a tap on the shoulder…it’s Boris Becker. The conversation goes something like this:

BB: Eric, that was a great match…really high level.
Me (dejectedly): Yeah, thanks.
BB: No, really, I thought you guys played a great match.
Me (now officially out of the US Open): Yeah, it was OK.
BB: It really only came down to a couple of points.
Me (kind of tired of speaking about a match that he can’t possibly care that much about): Most do.
BB: Listen, I know you just lost, but Novak really needs to practice with a lefty today ‘cause he plays Feliciano Lopez tomorrow. Do you mind?
Me (it’s about 100 degrees and humid, my hip is killing me, and I’m soaked from my two-hour match): Yeah. Sure.
BB: Great! Practice court 1 in an hour!

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Most of the attention at the US Open focuses on matches played on the show courts. However, the practice courts have their own strong fan support. (Photo: Barton Silverman/The New York Times)

I slowly walked out of the row of empty practice courts and found a few thousand people anticipating our, or his, practice. It was one of those moments where going back on court was the last thing in the world I wanted to do, and now it is what I remember most about my US Open experience. I have practiced with a number of top players over the years. It’s one of the perks of being left-handed, as those guys often need you to prep for a lefty opponent (thank you, Rafa). Most of my hits have been pretty relaxed, with Federer being the most casual of them all.

Novak was completely different. From the first ball, he was completely locked into the practice. Every ball he hit had a specific purpose. Every drill was designed to work on a specific situation that he would face against Lopez the next day. I was actually glad I’d had a match earlier in the day, because we only hit a few balls down the middle before things got intense. After only a few minutes, Becker ran over and asked if I could start chipping more backhands. Of course I obliged. After one rally, he came running back and said, “That’s great. Now you are gonna do only chip backhands…but don’t just push them, really work Novak around the court.” I’m not sure how many of you have ever hit with Novak, but “working” him around the court with a chip backhand isn’t exactly the easiest thing in the world to do.

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Boris Becker looking on while Novak Djokovic practices. The two have been working together since 2014. (Photo: Getty Images)

After 10 minutes of “working Novak around” with my chip backhand, I must have started to fade because he asked me to hit him some serves instead.

Me: Sure. Where would you like them? (In my hits with other top players, they like to get a rhythm off the slice serve first, then maybe a few kick serves, etc.)
Novak: Doesn’t matter.
Me: You want me to hit some second serves to start, or start hitting first-serve speed?
Novak: Whatever.
Me: You don’t want me to tell you where it’s going at all?
Novak: Do you think Feliciano will tell me?

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Novak Djokovic celebrates with the winner’s trophy after defeating Roger Federer at the 2015 US Open. (Photo: Getty Images)

Novak went on to beat Feliciano and win the Open, his third Grand Slam of the year. Did my practice get him over the edge? Probably not. But it did give me a window into how and what the best player in the world does when he practices. I’ve always believed that I am organized and focused in practice, but he was on another level.

I found that mindless hitting down the middle is not a great use of time. I discovered that fans would much prefer to watch me hit with Novak than to watch me play a doubles match! I knew that practicing your return was really important, but not more important than the way in which you practiced it. And I learned that I should work on my chip backhand, in case Novak ever called again.

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Nostradamus

Bionic Poster
^^^Absolutely hilarious. and Incredibly Smart practice with Novak. I have to give props to Becker, that guy is smarter than I thought. YES, all the good coaches know practice and even Drilling is ONLY way to play better during the match time. One thing I noticed about Drill/ USTA team practice in amateur clubs is that they play these Point drills where they keep points during the drill. It is meant to keep the drill Fun so that guys don't get bored with practice. But the Pro running it has to make sure guys work on certain shots or patterns without Winning the point the most important thing. but Most pros at club level are too dumb or greedy to promote this. and guys just get obsessed with winning points instead of working on certain shots or patterns.
 

Express

New User
Djokovic is probably the most voracious player on tour. He's at the top of the world now, but you can tell that's not enough for him. Eric was extremely astute in his mentioning of Federer's practice sessions. The contrast between the two is so huge. Federer looks so relaxed when he's practicing; one can barely tell he's practicing for a slam. Djokovic, however, is so full of energy when practicing; there is no doubt in a spectator's mind what Djokovic is training for, and how desperately he wants it.
 
E

Emperor of Belgrade

Guest
A good form of obsession this is. The Serbian-German combo cannot be any better.
 

PHS_10

Banned
Probably everyone of the top players must be practicing like this only. What is so unique in there.
 

Express

New User
Probably everyone of the top players must be practicing like this only. What is so unique in there.
Not really, to be honest. I don't know about the rest of the tour, but Federer's training sessions are noticeably lax. Not to say that he doesn't take it seriously (there was a leftie he practiced with during his prime for Nadal, I'll edit in the name when I remember), but there is a difference in intensity, for better or for worse.

Of course, Federer might just be an exception.
 

snvplayer

Hall of Fame
Are you talking about Daniel Yoo? He is a Korean tennis player, lefty, who was invited to practice with Federer in Dubai for two weeks.
He has written about the experience in Korean. The main focus was working Federer backhand with his forehand, and Federer take backhand down the line on a short ball. Apparently, Federer has never had a blister on his hand, pretty remarkable..
 

metsman

G.O.A.T.
Once again shows Djokovic's dedication to the sport and Fedr's casual arrogance...and they give this guy the moet chandon sportsmanship award.....

But it seems that all this targeted and intense practice didn't do much as Djokovic struggled against a subpar Lopez....
 

metsman

G.O.A.T.
Not really, to be honest. I don't know about the rest of the tour, but Federer's training sessions are noticeably lax. Not to say that he doesn't take it seriously (there was a leftie he practiced with during his prime for Nadal, I'll edit in the name when I remember), but there is a difference in intensity, for better or for worse.

Of course, Federer might just be an exception.
nadal's sessions are incredibly intense. Federer's are intense, but when no one sees them and when he is training in dubai or wherever. How people actually train at the majors or big events is based on personal preference because those practices don't really matter. They are light hits for most of the pros. Even this was probably a light hit for Novak and Federer's are even lighter.
 

veroniquem

Bionic Poster
Thanks for sharing. I saw Novak practise at USO 2015 and he does it very methodically and very seriously. So, I concur.
 
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