Sorry, Chris, but you couldn’t be more wrong on this point. Many people, including Andre Agassi, think Djokovic has the best serve return of all-time. (I rank him #3, behind Connors and Agassi because they played under much faster conditions).
Watching his matches since last year’s French Open, I was struck by how often he made errors on first serves or hit short returns on second serves compared to the rest of his career.
Look up his stats on the ATP site, and you’ll see his drop in play is clearly tied into his percentage of return points won. Here are his best seasons compared to this year:
2011: 36% on 1st serves, 58% on 2nd serves
2015: 34% on 1st serves, 57% on 2nd serves
2016: 35% on 1st serves, 59% on 2nd serves
2017: 32% on 1st serves, 54% on 2nd serves
The difference between 2011 (his greatest year because of the level of competition he faced) and 2017 is 12% on 1st serves and 7% on 2nd serves.
(Note: On his serve, there is a 2.8% drop off in first serve points won, and 5.4% decrease in second serve points won, when we compare 2011 and 2017. So there has been a drop in his consistency and flexibility at the baseline. But the advantage created by a great serve return trickles down through every single return point and puts constant and crushing pressure on his opponents.)
The margin between players at the top of the ATP rankings, like any sport, is razor thin. Imagine if Stephen Curry was a career 40% 3-point shooter instead of 43.8%. How about Rod Carew batting .305 instead of .328? Or Usain Bolt running the 100 in 9.64 instead of 9.58 (a difference of .7%)?
That’s the difference between being a once-in-a-generation player versus being an elite player, the difference between winning Grand Slams and falling short as he has during the last year.