Right now, Jannik Sinner will be preparing for Friday’s Wimbledon semi-final against Novak Djokovic. Attempt to do what has become borderline impossible – beat Djokovic at a grand slam. The last person to do so was Rafael Nadal at the French Open 13 months ago.
You already know many of the numbers – Djokovic looks set to win his 24th major title (he already has more than any man ever) and equal Roger Federer’s record of eight men’s singles titles at Wimbledon.
But what makes Djokovic so insanely hard to beat? We asked some of the best players in the world, including world No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz and five other players in the top 10, to try and pick one thing that has made beating Djokovic the biggest challenge in any sport right now. ..
“Even if you play some good points, it doesn’t hurt him at all”
We start with Carlos alcaraz. The world No 1 was the bookies’ favorite to beat Djokovic in their French Open semi-final last month. But after winning the second set, he started cramping at the start of the third and never recovered. He explains that what he finds most challenging about facing Djokovic is the relentless pressure he puts on you.
“Well, the pressure. I would say the pressure he puts on everyone. You know, not just me, for everyone to play at their best for about three hours in a grand slam.
“I have to deal with it, but it’s something I really want. I hope to play a final here against him. But for me, this is probably the toughest Novak faces.
“I mean, he makes things really, really easy. He moves really well. He hits the ball really well, really clean. He has a clean shot.
“I would say he doesn’t do anything wrong. He always makes everything (look) really easy. It’s really hard to find any weaknesses in his game.”
Alcaraz later added: “The main reason I had a cramp in the semifinals (at the French Open) was the tension I had against Novak in the semifinals of a grand slam.”
Denis Shapovalov, the world No. 29, who has lost all eight meetings with Djokovic, including a semi-final at Wimbledon in 2021
“He just puts a lot of pressure on you. He makes you earn everything. He’s always there. You really feel like if you have a little sneak, he’s there, while other games, other guys, you might get away with it.
“He really makes you earn it, especially in the big moments. Look at how he plays in tie-breaks – it’s crazy. It shows that he really makes you earn it in those big moments and he’s able to just go up. As soon as he smells blood.”
Djokovic’s mental strength was something that came up again and again…
Holger Rune, the world No.6 who has beaten Djokovic in two of their three meetings, including the final of the 2022 Paris Masters
“His mindset. When you play him, even if you play some good points, it feels like it doesn’t hurt him at all.
“He’s just there on every point, and often plays his best tennis on every point and gives full effort. It may sound easy to put effort into every point, but in the heat of the moment it is not. It’s really impressive to see.”
Roman Safiullin, world No. 92, who reached the Wimbledon quarter-finals this year
“Mentally. This is the one word I can describe. He’s on a different level mentally. When you see how he prepares before the game and when he steps on the field, you feel it’s a different energy.
“To play against him, you have to be 120 percent, 150 percent, all the time — for five sets. If you drop 5 percent, he takes you.”
“It’s a joke how he comes back”
Along with Andre Agassi, Djokovic is considered the best returner in tennis history. His ability to anticipate and neutralize even the biggest serves in the game is so deflating to his opponents. A big part of this is the unique ability he has to time his shots perfectly.
Lorenzo Musetti, the world No. 16, who went two sets against Djokovic at the 2021 French Open but pulled away 4-0 in the fifth set
“The timing he has is probably the best I’ve ever seen. It’s incredible, especially how he returns. He seems to know minutes before when you’re going to serve.
“It’s a joke how he comes back and how it’s always with him leaning forward and never going back. If I have to pick one thing, it’s probably his timing on the ball, especially with the backhand. It’s never too late, it’s something really great.”
“The way he defends is on a new level”
Coupled with his ability as a returner, Djokovic is also arguably the best defender in the history of the sport. How many times have you seen contests where it looks to all the world that he is about to lose the point, only for him to miraculously find a way to win it? Imagine how demoralizing it is to play against.
Casper Ruud, the world No. 4 who lost in the 2023 French Open final to Djokovic
“I think he’s taken defensive tennis to a new level. The way he moves and the way he’s been able to counter-hit from deep, out to the side of the court. It’s just really hard to hit winners against him.
“He gets to balls you don’t think he can get to. Even from those positions he’s able to hit nice counter-attacks with good depth. And he reads the game really well on top of that. Every time you get a card ball against him, it’s hard to know which side he’s going to because he guesses right most of the time and even when he doesn’t guess he’s able to get there.
“He’s just taken defensive… not defensive tennis, but how well he defends to a new level.”
“There are no holes in his game”
Early in his career, Djokovic’s serve was considered a weakness. It has since become a major strength. Until recently, his forehand was considered inferior to his dominant backhand. Now the forehand is seen by many as the most underrated shot in tennis and on par with his incomparable backhand. Having any weakness to attack is a terrifying prospect for one’s opponents.
Jannik Sinner, world No. 8 and Djokovic’s Wimbledon semi-final opponent. He went two sets up against Djokovic in their 2022 Wimbledon quarter-final, but lost in five sets
“(Long exhalation). It’s hard to overpower him because he has very, very good timing on the ball and he moves very well. I feel like his serve has improved a lot, so it’s also hard to see where he’s serving. Obviously he’s mentally very strong, so there are many, many things he does well. There are many many things, but every time I play him I feel something different.
“Winning so many grand slams and tournaments, it’s incredible, but you also have to be physically ready because you play five hours a day and he’s ready to do it. It’s insane. I’m glad he’s here so I can learn from him.”
Stefanos Tsitsipas, the world No. 5 who has lost two Grand Slam finals to Djokovic (2023 Australian Open and 2021 French Open)
“I think it’s that there are no holes in his game. There aren’t any massive weaknesses that you can expose. His forehand and backhand are equally good. So yes, you can beat him, but you have to be very persistent and hit hard at times when you can’t back up and wait He also serves well.
“I used to think his forehand wasn’t that good, but I’ve changed my mind – he has a great forehand. People say he has a great backhand, but I think his forehand and backhand are equally good.”
“He is always able to push through his limits to get better and better”
Part of why Djokovic has no gaps in his game is the fact that he is constantly evolving, adding more and more variety to what he does. Opponents will feel like they have the upper hand, only for him to come up with a new strategy and way to beat them.
Matteo Berrettini, world No. 38, who lost to Djokovic in the Wimbledon final in 2021. That year he also lost to Djokovic in the quarterfinals at the French Open and the US Open
“His ability is incredible. He’s improving all the time. If you look at the match against me, he was serving and volleying a lot, which is not really what you think of when you think of Novak. He’s always able to push his limits, through its limits, to get better and better.
“Then, like the other two (Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer), I think they’re just great players. They know themselves better. They really went deep into their bodies and their minds to just be the best version of themselves. He keeps doing it. That’s why I think he’s the man to beat.”
“I dare anyone to go out there and play four hours with Novak and see how you feel afterwards”
Physically, Djokovic’s durability – the kind that once saw him play nearly five hours against Andy Murray in the 2012 Australian Open semi-final before beating Rafael Nadal in close to six hours two days later – has left an impression on many of those who have met him . .
Nick Kyrgios, world No. 33, who lost the Wimbledon final to Djokovic in 2022. He beat Djokovic in their other two meetings (both in 2017)
“I just think people forget how strenuous this sport is, how physical it is. I feel like the outside world, people don’t understand. Just because it’s not contact, it’s not as physical. I dare anyone to go go out there and play four hours with Novak and see how you feel afterwards.”
Other players mentioned his ability to get stronger and stronger as the matches go on.
Cameron Norrie, world No. 13, who lost a Wimbledon semi-final to Djokovic in 2022
“Yeah, that’s a good question. In that match (last year’s semi-final) I played well, did everything well and I think it was on serve in the second set and I missed a couple of balls with nothing. You feel , that you have to keep playing at such a high level. I dropped a bit and he was above me. From then on he really improved and kept his level very high. Mine dropped a bit. I think that was the difference.
“He always finishes better and better as the matches go on. Over five sets, it’s really hard to beat him. You end up overplaying a little bit at times. He makes you hit such hard shots, even kind of easy-shot balls, he makes you feel like you have to go for the perfect one.
“You can learn a lot from these kinds of matches and playing with him. He plays at such a high level. Big respect for him, especially on this surface. It was a good match for me to learn from, that one, for sure.”
In addition to his durability and stamina, his speed over short distances and ability to take an opponent’s legs away can be decisive.
Andrey Rublev, the world No. 7 who lost to Djokovic in the Wimbledon quarterfinals this year
“He has the perfect game because he has really, really good legs. And he really knows how to use the speed of players.
“Sometimes as hard as you play for him, it’s also more comfortable for him. With the legs he has, he uses your speed and he plays flawlessly. Ultimately, he forces you to go for extra shots and you come up short.”
“His aura is really great”
Djokovic is at a point in his career where opponents, like the best athletes and teams, are scared before going out to face him. For many, it’s pretty much damage limitation. He has a presence and confidence that is hugely intimidating to his opponents.
Pedro Cachin, world No. 68, who lost to Djokovic in the first round at Wimbledon this year
“How many years has he played here and not lost? And on Center Court and not lost? Novak is for me the best player ever. He does everything well, he serves well and the person is really great when you play against him on Center Court. His aura is really great.”
Good luck Jannik.
(Photos: Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson)