Djokovic the 'Gumby'

Serbian's ability to stretch into splits sets him apart from other top-level players on the circuit

Djokovic the 'Gumby'

The subject of the interview at Wimbledon was flexibility, and Novak Djokovic was asked if he knew about Gumby. “Gumby?” Djokovic said. Gumby, his interviewer explained, was a television character made of green clay that later inspired a toy that could be bent into all sorts of improbable positions.

“Oh yes, yes, I know,” Djokovic said, laughing. “I am not this Gumby.”

Those in the tennis world would beg to differ.

There are many qualities that have allowed Djokovic, the 26-year-old Serbian, to rise to No. 1 in an ultracompetitive era and remain there. He has quickness, power, tactical acumen, excellent technique and, in recent years, considerably improved endurance. But if he has a defining quality, it is elasticity: his ability to stretch into splits or near-splits while extending himself into the corners to track down the opposition’s best efforts and send them back with point-winning pace of his own.

“Unbelievable,” said Jim Courier, the US Davis Cup captain and former world No 1. “I’ve never seen a male tennis player like that. He is like Gumby.”

Kim Clijsters, a retired female star well known for her sliding “straddle” split into wide forehands, was asked if she had ever seen a more supple men’s player.

“No, not that I can remember,” Clijsters said.

Djokovic’s flexibility was a significant factor in a perilous first week on the fresh grass of Wimbledon as it allowed him to rise up - Transformer-style - from an awkward Centre Court tumble in the first round against Florian Mayer that might have had less pliant men howling for a trainer.

“I take pride in that, yes, absolutely,” Djokovic said. “I take pride in those moments on the court, and I know that it’s the result of the hard work I put into everyday life.”
When asked about Djokovic, whose father, Srdjan, was a competitive ski racer, fitness coaches on tour say it is clear that Djokovic is naturally flexible.

“Genetics are a talent, and the way he is with his flexibility, it wouldn’t matter how much you or I stretched, we wouldn’t be able to get to that level,” said Brett Stephens, the Australian who once worked with former No. 1 Pete Sampras and is now helping the rising women’s player from New Zealand, Marina Erakovic.

But dig deeper with Djokovic and his team, an increasingly closed shop, and it is clear that his flexibility is anything but a coincidence. He paid unusual attention to it from a very young age because of the influence of his first coach, Jelena Gencic, who died last month in Belgrade during the French Open.

Gencic worked with Djokovic from the time he was 6 until he was in his early teens before he left Serbia to board at Niki Pilic’s tennis academy in Germany.

In an interview with Gencic in Belgrade in 2010, she said that she paid particular care to avoid putting too much physical burden on Djokovic, whom she dubbed “a golden child” shortly after he began playing the game in the mountain resort of Kopaonik at one of Gencic’s clinics.

“You know Novak was not too strong a boy; I didn’t want to practice fitness with him,” Gencic said in 2010. “You know how he is now elastic and flexible. Do you know why? It’s because I didn’t want to work too hard with him.”

Heaviest thing

Gencic held up her racket. “This,” she said, “is the heaviest thing he had to handle. We only worked on his legs, his quickness, only fitness on the court, not in the weight room. We stretched and did special movements for tennis, to be flexible, to be agile and to be fast and with the legs. And now he’s excellent, excellent, excellent.”

Djokovic said Gencic’s approach was always long-term.

“Jelena was one of the people that had a huge impact and huge influence on that part of, let’s say my profession, being flexible and taking care of my elasticity of the muscles,” he said in an interview on Saturday. “Because she taught me and convinced me that if I stayed flexible not only will I be able to move well around the court and be able to recover well after the matches but also I’ll be able to have a long career.”

Djokovic said that when he moved to Germany, he made a point of doing extra stretching outside the academy’s fitness programme. “Because I knew she was talking something that had sense,” he said of Gencic. “And I believed everything she said, and in the end now, I really understand what she meant.”

His opponents are now paying the price. “There are many good players on defense but not like he is,” said Bobby Reynolds, the 30-year-old American qualifier who lost to Djokovic in straight sets in the second round. “I can’t say anybody moves like him or has that flexibility on the stretch that he does.”

Djokovic says he has a photograph at home from the 2012 Australian Open where he is hitting a backhand return, his limber left trailing leg kicking high above his head. “It’s actually one of the most amazing photos I have of myself,” he said.

Djokovic’s wizardry in extension - particularly with his open-stance, two-handed backhand - applies a different sort of point-in-point-out pressure from other defensive masters of the modern game like Rafael Nadal.

“Djokovic plays so much closer to the baseline; Nadal is way back so the court feels a little bit bigger obviously,” Reynolds said. “But when Djokovic is on the baseline, and he’s moving, and he can stretch the court like that, it just shrinks the court down. You feel the window is so much smaller to hit through. That flexibility is something I’ve never seen. He’s doing splits.”

Does it give Reynolds ideas?

“Not at 30 and turning 31,” he said, laughing. “No splits left in me.”

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