In January this year, renowned tennis coach Patrick Mouratoglou put up a post on Instagram reciting a story from the 2006 and 2007 seasons. It was an era where Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal had started to take a seemingly unassailable grip on tennis.
“I was having discussions with most of the Top 10s and they were saying to me that it was impossible to win a Slam in their mind,” Mouratoglou recalled. “And a young guy, a 19-year-old suddenly came out and said out publicly that I’m going to beat them. And this guy was Novak Djokovic.”
“The tennis world said ‘what a shame, how can this guy be so cocky’ and things like that. It’s not cockiness, it’s confidence. And he happened to do it. Not because he said it, but because he deeply believed it.”
On Sunday, at the Court Philippe-Chatrier, in front of packed stands, Djokovic believed once again.
All his life, he had been chasing Federer and Nadal. Here was a counter-punching tennis player ready and willing himself to chase down everything an opponent would throw his direction and send it back with interest. Here was a tennis player playing third-wheel to a bromance and rivalry that had once split the tennis world into two.
Djokovic had already won more ATP 1000 Masters titles than Nadal. He had already been world No 1 for more weeks than Federer. But on Sunday, he surpassed both his rivals to break the men’s all-time Grand Slam record. At the 2023 French Open, Djokovic won his 23rd Major title – going one better than Nadal.
For three hours and 13 minutes, Djokovic battled against Casper Ruud in the final, eventually prevailing 7-6 (1), 6-3, 7-5. But there was already a sense of destiny of him winning his third Roland Garros crown. His kit sponsors knew it, as they provided him a specially designed sports jacket with the number ‘23’ neatly printed on it. The French Tennis Federation – organisers of the event – knew it, as they had prepared a specially made replica of the Coupe des Mousquetaires with each of Djokovic’s 23 Slams engraved on it, which they gave him after the match.
And Djokovic knew just as much as anyone else, that a shot at history was at stake.
“I knew that going into the tournament, going into the match especially today, that there is history on the line,” Djokovic said in the post-match press conference.
“But I try to focus my attention and my thoughts into preparing for this match in the best way possible to win like any other match. We did a great job in just staying in the present moment and performing as good as we wanted to.”
This wasn’t just any other match though. It was a Grand Slam final, and he was three sets away from setting a new record. Only six players in the history of the sport have won at least 20 singles Majors across eras. Djokovic now has 23, level with Serena Williams for the most won in the Open Era, and just one short of Margaret Court’s all-time mark of 24.
Crammed within the 15-odd thousand seating Court Philippe-Chatrier were a galaxy of stars across fields. There was Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Fifa World Cup-winners Kylian Mbappe and Olivier Giroud. There was NFL superstar Tom Brady seated in Djokovic’s player box. There was former boxing heavyweight World Champion Mike Tyson. Then there were Hollywood’s Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Grant. Yet none could have scripted a story quite like what Djokovic has done over this career.
The Serbian was coming up against a clay-court specialist, a world No 4 who had reached his third final in the last five Grand Slams. Ruud hasn’t had the best season so far, but his game started to pick up in Paris and he got back into the groove. His big serve set him up in rallies and the powerful forehand started to create inroads, as he dismantled the challenges from Holger Rune and Alexander Zverev enroute to the final.
Both weapons came to the fore as he started out the match well, getting the early break on the Djokovic serve to go 3-0 and 4-1 up in the opening set.
Last year, the 24-year-old had reached the Roland Garros final – his first at a Major – and faced Nadal in the summit clash. Facing Djokovic on clay is a comparatively less daunting proposition, but this was an opponent hungry for creating history.
Djokovic is a master at shifting gears and he did just that. He started to come up to the net to shorten rallies and often used a kick-serve on first serve to get the ball to bounce higher (compared to a regular flat first serve). He managed to draw level, and then in the tie-breaker, played a near flawless brand of tennis.
In the six tiebreaks he’s played at the French Open this term, Djokovic has not conceded a single unforced error across the 55 points. That first set against Ruud was a microcosm of what his mindset was – no need to win every single point, just claim the ones that matter.
He seized control in the second set, targeting the Ruud backhand – otherwise a steady stroke – to the point that the heavy top-spinning two-handed drives became a more tired single-handed slice. All the while, Djokovic remained energetic in the final of a Grand Slam that has been the most difficult to conquer for him.
“It’s kind of symbolic in a way that I won my historic 23rd here in Roland Garros, makes it even sweeter and greater knowing what it takes to win Roland Garros for me,” he said after the match. “It’s not to take anything away from of course the winning of any other Slam, but just Roland Garros is a highest mountain to climb for me I think in my career. That’s why it’s even more satisfying.”
As a final Ruud forehand sailed wide, Djokovic sank to the Parisian clay. He had spent almost two decades believing, chasing Federer and Nadal. Now he overtook them.
He climbed up to his player box to meet his family and team. Arguably, it may not be the last time he’ll be doing so.
“Of course the journey is still not over,” he said.
“I feel if I’m winning Slams, why even think about ending (what) has already been going on for 20 years. I still feel motivated, I still feel inspired to play the best tennis on these tournaments the most, Grand Slams. Those are the ones that count the most in the history of our sport”
It had been expected that Djokovic would be the one to finish with the most men’s singles Slams tally. With Nadal likely to miss out this season after his surgery and with the Spaniard claiming that 2024 will be his last on tour, there’s a good chance that there will be no competition for Djokovic’s tally in the near future.
But the Serb laid out the open secret to declare what it is that he had done to get to where he has reached – something Mouratoglou had alluded to.
“I had the power to create my own destiny. I tried to visualise every single thing in my life. Not only feel it but believe it with every cell in my body. If you want a better future, you create it. Take the means in your hands, believe it, create it.”
Djokovic knew he would become the greatest men’s singles Grand Slam winner of all time. He believed it. And now he’s created it.