From the moment Novak Djokovic entered the top three in the world rankings in 2007, he spent almost exactly four years in pursuit of his goal – the top of the tennis mountain and the Number One ranking. During that chase, the Serbian star won three Grand Slams and eventually would reach that pinnacle in 2011. The years since have been a blur of greatness unlike arguably anything the sport has ever seen.
Ahead of this year’s French Open fortnight, the 29-year-old’s Grand Slam championship tally was 11 – tied for the fourth most men’s singles major titles won during the Open era. Djokovic has built his legacy in the golden age of tennis during which Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who are first and tied for second on that same list, respectively, still have competed at a high level. Others like Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka have challenged for the biggest titles, as well. Even so, Djokovic broke into the top-five all-time in total weeks spent atop the rankings and also set the record for career ATP Masters 1000 events won– tournaments in the tier below Grand Slams – with 29.
Djokovic had won the Australian Open, Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, a bronze medal at the Olympics and so much more, yet one accolade was missing – the French Open title.
So many times he had been close, losing to the eventual champion seven times. Djokovic fell in the final three times prior to his confrontation against Number Two seed Murray on Sunday. And after entering last year’s championship match at Roland Garros as the heavy favorite against Wawrinka before losing, the scene was all too familiar this time around when the Scot stormed out to a 6-3 lead. When Murray earned a break point in the first game of the second set, it looked like it may be another chance lost for Djokovic.
That was until he won 17 of the next 22 games to put himself on the doorstep of an eventual 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 victory to cement his legacy at the French Open and not only win his 12th major, but become the first male player since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four Grand Slam titles at once.
“I needed a little bit of time to really find the right rhythm and start to play the way I intended, which happened in the beginning of the second and practically till 5-2 in the fourth set,” Djokovic said. “It was flawless tennis. I really felt like I played on a high quality.”
If someone put the Djokovic who competed on Court Philippe Chatrier on Sunday in a video game, he would be rated a near-perfect all-around player. After the first set in which the Serbian admittedly dealt with nerves – “I started well first game, and then I dropped four games. You know, nerves kicked in,” he said – Djokovic did a little bit of everything.
He played his usual elastic variety of defense and offense, punished Murray’s second serves while also winning 38 percent of his opponent’s first deliveries for good measure. While some may point to Djokovic’s net game as the only thing he has bearing any resemblance to a weakness, the Serbian won 26 of 33 net points against an elite defender who has the ability to craft passing shots like David Beckham bends free kicks.
But arguably the most impressive aspect of his performance was the beginning of that second set. Up until that point, Murray was in total control of both the scoreline and the rallies, simply blasting Djokovic from the baseline and toward another loss on the red clay in Paris.
“After that, obviously, second set he started to free up a little bit more and got the break immediately after that,” Murray said. “[He] probably started hitting the ball a little bit better.”
A “little bit better” was enough to the force the two-time major winner a few steps back off the baseline, with the master puppeteer, Djokovic, pulling the strings.
To his credit, Murray showed fight until the very last point – he recovered one break in the fourth and final set and saved two match points as the eventual winner served for the victory a second time– but nobody was stopping Djokovic on Sunday.
Djokovic has always shown his excitement after winning a major, but his emotional release in front of the Paris crowd was something different. It was as if he were dreaming, but the reality was that as he lay down in the heart he’d drawn on the terre battue, the champion was at his highest point yet.
“You know, what Novak achieved today is something extremely special,” Murray said. “A lot of people would have wanted to have seen that and been a part of that.”
Over the course of the last four Grand Slams, Djokovic has only lost 11 sets in his 28 wins, 19 of which came against the top-30 in the world.
The scary thing for other players is that whether he would admit it or not, the French Open was Novak’s kryptonite. From Nadal winning at Roland Garros nine times and getting in Djokovic’s way, to Wawrinka’s groundstroke blitz last year, the man simply could not find a way to win. But now the chains are off and one can only wonder just how high Djokovic’s ceiling is, or if one even exists. It only makes sense that he will keep improving as he now chases Federer’s 17 Grand Slam mark.
“I’m sure of it,” ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert said before the tournament on his thought that Djokovic will keep improving. “I’m completely sure of it because I’ve seen – he’s about to be about 29 – to me he’s the most complete player I’ve ever seen because his return game is just crazy. His serve is clutch. His backhand is the best in the game, everything he does.”
Djokovic has still played third fiddle, even while he has proven himself the best player in the world. Could he challenge Federer’s greatest-of-all-time legacy, or will the Swiss dig down deep for one more major title?
All of these questions have been asked as a legend did his talking on the court. It was only fitting that for seemingly the first time during this year’s drenched French Open, the sun shone on Djokovic as he received his trophy. Perhaps it was divine intervention to send a message about a divine athlete – enjoy every moment he has left on court, because Djokovic seems well on his way to becoming the best tennis player ever.