Novak Djokovic pictured how it would end, holding his children in his arms, hoisting another Grand Slam tournament trophy above his head, singing the national anthem and Serbian fans chanting and dancing to celebrate his third French Open men’s singles title. .
At Roland Garros on Sunday, Djokovic defeated Casper Rudd 7-6 (1), 6-3, 7-5 to capture a record 23rd Grand Slam singles title, continuing a stunning breakthrough a year and a half ago. He was deported from Australia ahead of the first Grand Slam of 2022, a poor harbinger of the year ahead. After Rudd’s final forehand left the court, Djokovic dropped his racket and collapsed on his back on the red clay. Appreciating the play was easy.
“It’s one of the hardest things for me to win,” Djokovic said of the French Open.
Minutes later, after a congratulatory hug from Rudd, Djokovic knelt in prayer at mid-court, then went to the stands to hug his family and his coaches. When he returned to court minutes later, he was wearing a jacket emblazoned with “23” on the right shoulder.
Djokovic, 36, has spent the past two decades chasing rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, two legends who have defined this era of modern tennis. That race is over, at least for now.
“Those two guys have occupied my mind a lot for the last 15 years,” said Djokovic, sitting next to the championship trophy.
Just months before Federer’s retirement, Djokovic outplayed Federer last summer, winning his 21st Grand Slam title on Center Court at Wimbledon on grass, where Federer has long reigned. Djokovic won again at the Australian Open in January. Spanish champion Nadal, who missed that 22nd title, missed this year’s French Open due to injury.
With so many stars on hand for the event, he made history on the red clay of Philippe Chatrier Court at the French Open, which Nadal has won an astonishing 14 times. Hundreds of yards away is a silver statue of Nadal smacking his forehead.
Retired NFL quarterback Tom Brady was seated next to Djokovic’s wife Jelena. French soccer star Kylian Mbappe and Swedish soccer star Zlatan Ibrahimovic were seated a few rows above the stadium. American actor Jake Gyllenhaal, tennis icons Stan Smith and Yannick Noah and many French actors, singers, businessmen and sportsmen were also in the audience.
It was an important step in a journey full of self-inflicted crises, epic battles with Nadal and Federer on court and barren early and midseason seasons, some because he was injured and others when he missed matches. That made him an ardent opponent of the Covid-19 vaccine. His most impossible task is to win the hearts of tennis fans who long ago committed to the first two members of the so-called Big Three.
By the end of 2010, when Djokovic was 23 and playing his first major in five years, Federer had already won 16 Grand Slam titles for Djokovic.
But in 2011, Djokovic began taking the game by storm by winning the Australian and US Opens and Wimbledon. He put together a 41-match winning streak and a 10-1 record against Federer and Nadal. Tennis has never been the same.
Maybe it’s his new, gluten-free diet, or giving up alcohol, or time spent in a pressurized room. As his coach Goran Ivanisevic said on Sunday evening, the stretching and calisthenics routine turned Djokovic into a racket-wielding rubber band.
The boulder-sized chip on his shoulder that Djokovic says he’s carried since growing up during the war in Serbia doesn’t hurt either.
Ivanisevic, a native of Croatia, has described the Balkan fighting spirit in Djokovic’s DNA, as no outsider can enter the biggest tournaments.
Retired German champion Boris Becker, who coached him for three years, said Djokovic should stop punishing him for the blind act, which neither Becker has yet elaborated on. Once he did that, Becker said, he was liberated and began to win with abandon.
And then the numbers defy simple explanation. With Sunday’s victory, Djokovic regained the world No. 1 ranking for the 388th week. In addition to the record for Grand Slam titles, he also holds the record for 1000 Masters titles. If any Nadal or Federer fans want to accuse him of being a setter, Djokovic has a winning record against both of them.
Exhausted from his semi-final win over Carlos Algarz, Djokovic skipped practice on Saturday and sought peace while walking in the woods. This is a good decision.
The 24-year-old Rudd, a steady and determined Norwegian playing in his third Grand Slam final in 13 months, had hopes of turning Sunday into a coronation, which ended in a grinding first set that ended in Djokovic’s signature style. Over the years and hundreds of Grand Slam matches, Djokovic has only lost five times after winning the first set.
Former world No. 1 Andy Roddick famously said of Djokovic, “First he comes for your legs, then he comes for your soul.”
Ivanisevic added to that assessment on Sunday: “Then he digs your grave and you have a funeral and you’re dead. Goodbye. Thank you for coming.”
What Djokovic did to Rudd on his way to history early Sunday morning.
Root broke Djokovic’s serve to open the match and took an early lead. While Djokovic had shaky play in the first few games, muffling overheads and pushing balls out of court, Rudd played mostly error-free and deceptively dangerous tennis. His profession.
But for the past ten years, Djokovic has emerged as the tennis world has come to know and fear. At Rutt 4-2, close enough to sniff out a first-set finish line, Djokovic engaged in one of those classic grinding rallies, running from corner to corner, back and forth, keeping the point alive long after. . It ended the way it often does – a tired opponent fighting for oxygen and lobbing a ball into the net.
“A bit of a disaster,” Rudd said.
In most tennis matches, when a set moves to a tiebreaker, the outcome is a coin flip. Not so with Djokovic.
Last week, he explained, when a tiebreaker begins, his mind shifts to a more focused state of “staying in the moment,” playing each point on its merits and not letting anything go.
He opened this one with a lunging forehand winner, and seven points later with another blast forehand that Rudd didn’t even make a run at, it didn’t matter. When it was over, Djokovic had played 55 points in tiebreakers during this match and had yet to commit an unforced error.
For an hour and 22 minutes, Ruud matched Djokovic sprint for sprint and shot for long distances, and he had nothing but a rubber set of legs and a damaged soul. Rudd scrounged around for scraps, pushing the match past three hours. But after that first set, it was just a matter of time.
In this haze of success, it can be hard to remember Djokovic’s long streak, even the most recent. Last year he was in Australia awaiting his extradition hearing. But there was also that ugly time in 2020, when he accidentally swatted the ball down a line judge’s throat and was thrown out of the US Open. The following month, Nadal destroyed him in straight sets in the final of the French Open, which was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. Djokovic went for another walk in the wilderness.
Instead, he came within one match of reaching a Grand Slam and almost won all four Grand Slams in 2021, beating Nadal at Roland Garros.
He has won the first two Grand Slams this year.
“The journey is not over yet,” Djokovic said. “If I’m winning Slams, why should I think about ending my life?”
He may be alone with 23 Grand Slam titles, but in his eyes, there is more history to play with.