See The Ball Like Novak Djokovic

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.

Tracking Basics

Against a slow ball, that bounces well in front of him, Djokovic sees each of the 4 most important fixations in clear, foveal vision. He sees the ball…

  1. As his opponent hits it,
  2. Mid-air, as it crosses the net,
  3. As it bounces, and
  4. Just before he hits it.

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.

Novak Djokovic playing a ball which is relatively slow, and bounces far in front of him.

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.

When playing the ball on-the-rise and close to him, Novak Djokovic fixates on the bounce point as his final fixation. His gaze remains there, still, during stroke production, rather than shooting back to his contact point in the short time between bounce and contact.

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.

Novak Djokovic performs a predictive saccade to his final fixation, resting his gaze at a future location of the ball (left) before it actually arrives (right). Notice how the head position doesn’t change between the two frames, as the ball makes it’s final approach. (Image from footage recorded by Top Tennis Training.)

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.

Novak Djokovic’s final fixation on a forehand. His head is in position before the ball arrives (left), and then remains still as the ball crosses his fixation (right). The result is a still head throughout the contact phase of the swing.

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.

When stretched out to his right, returning a slice serve, the best returner of all time performs a final fixation well in front of his contact point. His head is still, and points almost directly at the net post, instead of sideways, as would be required to see the contact itself.

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.


  1. John Thau
    March 26, 2023

    Very good! I have been doing this and train my students to do it.
    One suggestion go to the bounce of the ball so you can line up on it like you are describing.
    I have bad eye sight but going to the bounce of the ball gives me good view to hit through the ball.
    Glasses always fog up and I can’t use contacts.
    For advanced players with good eyesight read the racquet face contact with the service of the ball. It helps to keep from being deceived by service motion.

  2. Chris
    March 30, 2023

    I think there are lots of good points here, however it needs to be pointed out that head position doesn’t necessarily equate to eye position. Ie eyes (gaze) can and will move separately from the head. Therefore it’s not possible to assess in certain terms from a few frames where and how the player is actually looking.

    1. Johnny (FTF)
      April 11, 2023

      True. We have other, higher definition images that show the actual eyes of the player. Due to that, plus the gaze research done by Joan Vickers, I am confident the gaze is also still, but from many angles we can only see the head.

      This article has an image of Novak’s and Zverev’s eyes as they strike the forehand. We can see that each’s gaze has, in fact, rested in front of contact.


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