For anyone who saw the French Open 2021 final between Novak Djokovic and Stefanos Tsitsipas, there was a point in the third game of the fifth set that will be hard to forget.
The score was 1-1 and 15-all with Tsitsipas serving. The Greek was on top from the start in that rally, pounding the Djokovic backhand with heavy groundstrokes, before playing a well-disguised drop shot in an attempt to finish the point.
Djokovic was a good three yards behind the baseline when Tsitsipas made contact. At first impression, it felt the Serb wouldn’t get to it. But he did. He set off in a flash, ran at full tilt, and got there with enough time to dab the ball crosscourt at an acute angle for a winner.
The fact that he could control his racket-head so masterfully despite coming in at such speed was phenomenal in itself, but what left the audience stunned was him getting to the ball in the first place. “Superhuman… where did he get the energy from,” exclaimed the commentator.
It was exactly three hours and 30 minutes on the match clock at that time. Less than 48 hours earlier, Djokovic had outlasted Rafael Nadal in a four-hour-eleven-minute slugfest. A couple of days before that, he slogged for three hours and 28 minutes to get the better of Matteo Berrettini. And in the round of 16, he had come from two sets down to stop Lorenzo Musetti’s run in close to three and a half hours.
The hardest worker
As was the case in each of his 18 Grand Slam victories before this, we were treated to Djokovic’s full repertoire as a tennis player in Paris this year. His iconic returns of serves, his impeccably accurate groundstrokes, his tactical genius, his extraordinary movement, his world-class skills – all this came together yet again, to hand him perhaps his greatest triumph so far.
However, Djokovic’s run at Roland Garros also served as a reminder of the fact that he is the hardest worker in the room. His self-confidence and belief are legendary, he has proven that time and again by turning the tables after being set points and match points down. But that isn’t all. In the most tense moments, when the strength of the mind and body is tested to its limits, when it isn’t merely about skill, Djokovic simply works harder than any of his opponents. He outruns them, outlasts them.
In the round of 16 against Musetti, he won a point after he slipped and fell down. In the quarter-final against Matteo Berrettini, Djokovic led 3-2 in the fourth set after losing an intense tie-breaker in the third. Berrettini hit a forehand behind him and in an attempt to switch directions quickly, he lost balance and fell flat on the red dirt. In the final against Tsitsipas, he chased a drop shot with full commitment before nearly crashing into the net post and falling flat on the floor again.
Here he was – the world No 1, an 18-time Grand Slam champion, undoubtedly one of the greatest tennis players in history, at 34 years old – showing the kind of desperation that sets him apart.
One of the biggest challenges for Djokovic’s opponents is the extra balls he makes them hit. While running from corner to corner deep in the court, he manages to get his racket to the ball from the most hopeless of positions. But the French Open this year also highlighted two other aspects of his game that prove his unmatched work ethic.
The Serb had played close to seven and a half hours of back-breaking tennis inside two days when the final set against Tsitsipas began. Everyone watching knew it was going to come down to a battle of endurance, as much as anything. But when it comes to Djokovic, taking the easier route is never a consideration.
Instead of looking for quick points by serving big, he stuck to his plan and maintained first serve speeds of around 170 kmph. He made 74% of his first serves in that fifth set and won a staggering 85% of those points. Of course, it was a tactical move to not give Tsitsipas a look at the second serve, but it couldn’t have been an easy decision considering the fatigue he should have been feeling. He hardly ever got tempted to go big and take a chance with his first serve, rather choosing to get into rallies and grind out the points even when he was 30 or 40-love up.
Another feature of Djokovic’s game that sets him apart is his relentless pursuit of a second or third break in a set. And at Roland Garros, which is probably the most physically demanding tournament in the year, he showed just how relentless he can be in this regard.
Be it against Berrettini in the quarters, against Nadal in the semis, or against Tsitsipas in the final, Djokovic was on the hunt for a second break of serve in the same set each time he had the opportunity. One often sees players conserve energy and focus on their own serve after getting a break. But there is no breathing space when you’re up against Djokovic.
Again, there is a tactical aspect to this as well. Perhaps he seeks a second break so that he can serve first in the next set, or he simply wants to crush his opponent mentally. But there’s no denying that it also shows his commitment to hard work. No matter how brutal the match is, Djokovic doesn’t play cheap points when he senses the kill. He receives each serve like he’s down a break himself, and this involves a kind of intensity that’s exclusive to him.
During the break before the start of the fifth set against Tsitsipas, the camera zoomed in on Djokovic’s face. As the court staff watered the clay and the crowd braced itself for a one-set shootout for the title, Djokovic stared into the distance. Perhaps he was visualising the tactics he was going to employ in the final set. Or perhaps, as he has often admitted doing, he was visualising holding aloft another Grand Slam winner’s trophy. Either way, one thing is for certain, he knew in that moment that he was going to give it his all.
Djokovic has never hidden his ambition of wanting the most number of Major titles. And now, he has taken a giant step towards achieving that goal. In the coming years, he will surely face a number of highly determined players who will try to stop him in his tracks. They will probably have the racquet skills to match him shot-for-shot. But in those do-or-die moments, point-for-point, can they match his hard work? Can any player match Djokovic’s desperation?