When Novak Djokovic won his second French Open and 19th Grand Slam on Sunday, it was a lot more than an elusive trophy or a new record. It was a definitive, undeniable, phenomenal mark of greatness that put him above everyone else in modern men’s tennis.
The 34-year-old became the first man in the Open Era to win each of the four Majors twice. Only Roy Emerson and Rod Laver have done it before. Neither Pete Sampras, Roger Federer nor Rafael Nadal could do it (five women have achieved it as well).
It also brought his tally to 19, just one behind the all-time record shared by Federer and Nadal. A record he seems well set to break very soon.
Does it make French Open 2021 his best Grand Slam triumph? Can just one title stand out when he has won so many in such different circumstances for the last decade?
The world No 1 won the last Wimbledon title after saving two championship points. He won his first French Open title after losing in the semis or final for three straight years. He saved two match points in the semi-final en route his first US Open title. He has won the Australian Open in three different decades. He already is the first man to win all nine ATP Masters title and he has done that twice.
But what makes this Roland Garros victory special is not just the many, many records he broke but the manner in which he did it. The Serb had to overcome obstacles like never before to reach his 19th Major. Barriers that have never been previously broken, barriers both external and the ones in his own mind, all in the space of one tournament.
- He was two sets down to teenage debutant Lorenzo Musetti in the fourth round.
- He was placed in the same half as Nadal and had to battle the 13-time champion in an epic, energy-sapping semi-final, handing him just his third loss (to 105 wins)
- He was two sets down to 22-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final, and fought back to win his first Major final after dropping the first two sets.
To understand just what he has achieved, even without the context of his title race with Federer and Nadal, one has to look at just how hard it has been for him to reach both his titles in Paris.
The 34-year-old has been playing the French Open since 2005 and has failed to reach the quarter-finals just twice in 17 appearances. Roland Garros is where he made his first Major quarter-final and semi-final appearance, yet his first final came only in 2012. After his breakthrough 2011, this was the only Major missing in his Calendar Slam but he lost three finals in the next four years. He handed Nadal just his second loss there in 2015 but fell to Stan Wawrinka in a stunning upset in the final.
The talk then was focussed on how Djokovic was struggling to get there because of how desperately he wanted the Career Slam. Even with his loaded resume, the questions over his greatness candidacy lingered. He completed that particular quest in 2016, but just when it looked like a second Roland Garros would be easier, he suffered from another strange fallow period despite his terrific record on clay.
He was beaten in back-to-back quarter-finals, the second being the shattering 2018 loss to Marco Cecchinato that, in hindsight, proved to be a turning point. Yet, he lost an ill-tempered five-set semi-final to Dominic Thiem in 2019 and was crushed by Nadal with a bagel to boot in the 2020 final.
The second French open title seemed to become a chimera for a player who had achieved almost every other record of enduring dominance in the sport. But maybe it took long because it was to be worthy of the legend of Djokovic: a victory only after surmounting seemingly impossible odds. It seems only fitting that he achieved this mythical record after slaying Nadal in his kingdom and fighting the warrior from Greece from the brink.
A fantastic final fightback
At two sets down, like in the match against Musetti, Djokovic activated his peak mode: the one that barely misses and plays out points till the very end. The speed and calmness with which he hits the reset button after a bad point or a missed chance is incredible. At no moment in a match can he be counted out, for no game can an opponent afford to let down their guard even a little.
Two moments in the final were classic examples of just how ridiculously relentless this version of Djokovic can be.
At 2-1 in the third set, after dropping the second 6-2, Djokovic went for the kill on Tsitsipas’ serve. The game went to deuce six times and the 22-year-old saved four break points. But Djokovic just kept putting the ball back and it was the Greek who was forced into an error. That was the turning point of the match, the world No 1 did not face a single break point in the last three sets.
In the fifth and final set, leading 4-3, 15-0, the two played out another sensational point in which Djokovic which just refused to give up. After over 15 shots in the rally, Tsitsipas thought he had the point, he might as well have but for Djokovic just staying in the point and finishing it at the net.
After the match, the 34-year-old gave a telling insight into his mind. “There are always two voices: the one telling me that it’s over was loud within myself being 0-2, so I tried to vocalise the other voice, the one telling me that I can do it.”
So simple, yet perhaps the most difficult to do during a Grand Slam final.
That Djokovic is extraordinarily talented and physically gifted is never in doubt but the way he backs his immense skill with an unyielding will in any given situation is what sets him apart. That voice in his head that tells him he can do anything drowns out whatever the opponent is doing, even the crowd when the majority is rooting against him.
This belief, as much as his superlative ability, is what makes him virtually unbeatable. As long as he has this limitless faith in himself, he cannot be counted out even when he is off-colour. And even his less-than-100% game is better than most players’ best.
Now, with this most illustrious record, Djokovic’s mental fortitude would only have increased. To beat Nadal, win the final from two sets down and lift an elusive second French Open had once seemed like a peak for the world No 1. With this achievement unlocked, he will now aim even higher – a Calendar Slam, perhaps even a Golden Calendar Slam.
And the incredible thing is that there is no limit to what Djokovic can now accomplish. History written, the future now holds the promise of never-seen-before feats.