When you think of “consistency” in tennis, who’s the first player that comes to mind?
For most, it’s Novak Djokovic.
Novak is one of the best movers on the tour, and he has perfect kinetic chains on both the forehand and the backhand, but those two traits alone aren’t enough to strike the ball as cleanly as he does. Dennis Shapovalov, for example, also moves well with perfect kinetic chains.
Novak Djokovic possesses world class vision. We’ll break down Novak’s gaze behavior in various situations, so you can apply some of of his tracking techniques to your own game.
Slow balls that bounce short are the easiest balls to track, because tracking them really is as simple as “watch the ball.” It’s moving slowly enough you can track it with smooth pursuit, and the bounce is far enough from you that you can see both the bounce and your own contact with distinct, separate fixations.
Above is an image of the bounce and hit fixations Djokovic uses when tracking a slow ball. He sees the ball bounce, and then he follows the ball with his head until just before his contact point, where his gaze remains still as he strikes the ball.
Receiving Exceptionally Deep Balls
What about a ball that bounces close to you?
On this ball, it’s much more difficult to see both the bounce and your own contact as separate, distinct fixations. The time between bounce and contact is so short that you’d have to whip your eyes from one fixation to the next in order to see both.
Elite ball strikers like Novak Djokovic don’t whip their eyes back like this, because elite ball-strikers maintain a still gaze during stroke production. Instead, the best trackers on the planet hold their gaze still on their bounce fixation as they swing.
The solution to on-the-rise, half-volley-esque balls is counter-intuitive: abandon your independent contact fixation, and use only peripheral vision to see the ball after the bounce. Your final fixation, when playing a ball that lands sufficiently close to you, should be on the bounce itself.
Seeing Fast Balls at Contact
Most of the time, the ball will fly too quickly to utilize smooth pursuit tracking throughout its entire flight, especially towards the end of its flight, as it moves closer and closer to the player’s eyes, and thereby crosses their field of vision faster and faster. Due to this, elite trackers like Novak Djokovic won’t attempt to smoothly track the ball all the way into contact, and will instead perform a predictive saccade to their final fixation.
This predictive saccade, when performed accurately, guarantees that Novak will see the ball one more time before contact. The goal when tracking is not to keep the ball in focus the entire flight. Not when receiving a high level shot, anyway. The goal, instead, is to see the ball, crystal clearly, at important points. Unless you’re playing a half-volley-esque shot, like we discussed above, one of these important points is just before your contact point.
Above, we see Novak fixating on a point at which he knows the ball will be, with the fixation completed before the ball actually arrives. He sees it one final time as it crosses that point, head still, gaze stabilized, and then strikes it clearly as a result.
You Can Fixate In Front of Contact
Seeing the ball actually hit the strings is over-rated, and by over-rated, I mean it doesn’t matter at all. It isn’t physically possible to adjust your swing after a certain point, so even if you could gain visual information after that point, it wouldn’t help you.
Instead, your goal should be to see the ball, crystal clear, at some final fixation close to contact. Most of the time, your swing will already be well in progress at this point, but small adjustments with the arm can still be made. Many players, like Novak Djokovic, typically elect to fixate in front of their contact point for their final fixation, instead of at it.
There are two cases where I actually strongly recommend fixating in front of contact, instead of trying to see the ball at contact itself.
The first is when playing your dominant eye side stroke. For a right-handed, right-eye dominant player (like Novak Djokovic), this is the forehand. Instead of trying to follow the ball all the way into your strings, use a final fixation in front of contact. This will prevent you from over-turning your head as you prepare, making it less likely you accidentally lose the ball with your dominant eye.
The second situation is when receiving shots hit far away from you, across the court – you have to stretch far out to the right or left to return them. A great example of this is returning a slice serve that’s cutting away from you. In this situation, if you try to follow the ball all the way into your strings, your head has to move a lot while the ball is aggressively crossing your field of vision, both back-to-front and left-to-right. Instead, cut off the ball’s flight with your eyes. Look diagonally forward at your final fixation, rather than sideways, and your clean contact rate will increase dramatically.
Vision Solves Pressure Situations
The human brain is programmed to scan for threats in times of stress. That’s why, on pressure points, it’s so, so difficult to maintain proper gaze behavior in tennis. If you aren’t a vision expert, chances are, your contact breaks down on big points.
Novak Djokovic is the most clutch tennis player of all time, and it’s no coincidence that the most clutch tennis player of all time also possesses some of the greatest visual habits in the world. Not only will improving your vision make you better, but it will make you better on the big points, when it really counts.
Practice seeing like Novak Djokovic, and you won’t just hit cleaner, you’ll also be able to execute the same way at 6-6 in the tiebreak as you do on the first point of the match.