Training with Novak

Hitting with the World’s #1 is no Djok

Boris Becker with Novak Djokovic

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.

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.

Scott Lipsky and Eric Butorac
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!

US Open practice courts
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.

Andre Agassi says goodbye
Eric Butorac recalls fond memories of Andre Agassi in his article Agassi says goodbye.

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.

Boris Becker and Novak Djokovic
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?

Novak Djokovic celebrates 2015 US Open championship
Novak Djokovic celebrates with the winner’s trophy after defeating Roger Federer at the 2015 US Open. (Photo: Getty Images)
Eric Butorac at the 2014 Australian Open
Read how Eric Butorac went from one of those watching to one of those being watched at the Australian Open in From Fan to Final.

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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Author: Eric Butorac

Eric Butorac has won 17 doubles titles on the ATP Tour, made the finals of the Australian Open, and achieved wins over Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, and the Bryan Brothers. In 2014, he took over for Roger Federer as President of the ATP Tour Players’ Council. As a volunteer assistant, he also helped lead the Harvard tennis team to two Ivy League titles and a national ranking of #16.

8 thoughts on “Training with Novak”

  1. Thanks for the blogs, I really enjoy them. That parenting 101 was very useful to me, thank your dad!

    Quick question about your practice with Novak, how long was it? Do you know how long or if he warms up before going on court to practice to have a high intensity from the first balls; if he re warms up before his match, and how long a stretching does he do in a day? Thanks a lot.

    1. Tovarich –

      Thanks for your feedback and I’m glad you are enjoying the blogs.

      Our practice was on the off day between matches for him. It lasted probably 90 mins. I’m sure he spends time warming up just beforehand (dynamic stretching, band work, etc) but I didn’t see that on this day. I would guess that it’s at least 30-45 mins. I don’t know how much stretching he does in a day, but it’s a lot. From what I’ve seen, his day seems very calculated. He is either training or actively recovering (stretching, ice bath, eating, etc) throughout the entire day. I think a lot of the top players have adopted this approach, but he is pretty much the gold standard.

      Thanks again for your questions.

  2. Great blog. I read it today in Serbian media. People find it’s really great and interesting to know how much Novak is dedicated and how he is paying attention to details.

    You don’t want me to tell you where it’s going at all?

    Novak: Do you think Feliciano will tell me?

    Incredibly. And so true!

  3. Eric,
    Parabéns pela profundidade que trata esse assunto.
    Parabéns pela riqueza de detalhes.
    Isso é o Tennis!!!!

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