It would be easy to write off the three losses and dropped sets to #Medvedev and 19-year-old #Denis #Shapovalov, who similarly challenged #Djokovic in the third round in #Australia. After all, #Zverev is the most accomplished player of the group, and he lost his two other recent meetings with the #Serbian, both by lopsided score lines. But a closer look at the shot-by-shot records of these contests, logged by the volunteer-driven Match Charting Project, shows that the generation of rising stars is consistently neutralising Djokovic’s backhand on hard courts in ways that #Nadal does not.
A familiar feature of men’s tennis is the battle over forehands. Attackers such as #Roger #Federer back further and further into their backhand corner so that they can use their stronger shot, while their opponents attempt to manage rallies so that the forehand is impractical. Djokovic alters the calculus with his powerful two-handed backhand, and particularly with his preternatural balance, which allows him to send the shot in any direction. There are two general ways to negate that advantage: hit fewer shots to the backhand, or hit those shots more aggressively. Zverev’s approach is the former. In his Tour Finals upset, he limited Djokovic to topspin backhands on only 41% of his groundstrokes, compared to the Serbian’s career average of 45%. In their previous meeting at the same tournament, Zverev knocked that number down to 39%, one of the few times Djokovic hit so few backhands on a hard court. (Another sub-40% performance was Denis Istomin’s shock upset of the Serbian at the 2017 Australian Open.)