Novak Djokovic started his day imagining how it would end, holding his children in his arms, hoisting another Grand Slam trophy over his head and singing his national anthem while Serbian fans cheered, danced and celebrated his third French Open men’s singles title and so much more.
On Sunday at Roland Garros, Djokovic defeated Casper Rudd, 7-6(1), 6-3, 7-5, to claim a record 23rd Grand Slam singles tournament, continuing a stunning turnaround from a year and a half ago, when he was deported from Australia. Ahead of the first Grand Slam tournament of 2022, which is a dire harbinger of the coming year. After Rudd’s final blow sailed off the court, Djokovic dropped his racket and landed on his back on the red clay. It was easy to appreciate the drama.
“The hardest win for me,” Djokovic said of the French Open.
Moments later, after a congratulatory hug from Ruud, Djokovic knelt to pray in midfield, then headed to the stands to embrace his family and coaches. When he returned to the field moments later, he was wearing a jacket with “23” on it under his right shoulder.
Djokovic, 36, has spent most of the past two decades chasing down rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, two other giants who have defined the modern era of tennis. That race is over, at least for the time being.
“These two guys, over the past 15 years, have been on my mind a lot,” said Djokovic, sitting next to the tournament trophy.
Djokovic outlasted Federer last summer, just a few months before Federer retired, and won his 21st Grand Slam title at Wimbledon Center Court on the turf long ruled by Federer. In January at the Australian Open, Djokovic won again. This title is tied for 22nd by Nadal, the Spanish champion who missed this year’s French Open due to injury.
With a host of stars on hand for the occasion, he made history on the red clay of Court Philippe Chatrier at the French Open, which Nadal won an astonishing 14 times. A silver statue of Nadal hitting a forehand stands hundreds of yards away.
Retired NFL quarterback Tom Brady sat next to Djokovic’s wife, Jelena. French soccer star Kylian Mbappe and Swedish soccer star Zlatan Ibrahimovic sat a few rows above the pitch. The spectators also included American actor Jake Gyllenhaal, tennis icons Stan Smith and Yannick Noah, and many French actors, singers, entrepreneurs and athletes.
This was a very important step in a journey filled with self-crises, epic battles with Nadal and Federer on the court, and early and middle stock exchange seasons, some due to his injury and others when he missed tournaments because he would not compromise on principles. that kept him a staunch opponent of the Covid-19 vaccination. His seemingly impossible task was to win over the hearts of long-committed tennis fans to the first two members of the so-called Big Three.
At the end of 2010, when Djokovic was 23 years old and five years after competing in his first major tournament, Federer had already won 16 Grand Slam titles to Djokovic’s title.
But it was in 2011 that Djokovic began to break into the sport, 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 is not what it used to be.
Maybe it was his new gluten-free diet, quitting alcohol, or time spent in a pressurized room. Perhaps it was his stretching and exercise routine that turned Djokovic into a racket-holding rubber band and made him “still move like a cat,” his coach, Goran Ivanisevic, said Sunday night.
The boulder-sized chip on his shoulder, which Djokovic said he carried since growing up during the war in Serbia, didn’t hurt either.
Ivanisevic, the Croatian, described the Balkan fighting spirit in Djokovic’s DNA that no one who came from outside the region could match in the biggest matches.
Boris Becker, a retired German champion who coached him for three years, said that Djokovic needed to stop punishing himself for indiscretions that neither Djokovic nor Becker talked about in detail. Once he did that, Baker said, he became liberated, and he started winning with abandon.
The numbers since then defy simple explanation. With Sunday’s win, Djokovic reclaimed the world No. 1 spot for a record 388th week. In addition to the record for Grand Slam tournament titles, he also holds the record for 1,000 Masters titles. In case any Nadal or Federer fans want to blame him for being a mere translator, Djokovic has a winning record against both of them.
Fresh from his semi-final win over Carlos Alcaraz, Djokovic skipped training on Saturday and sought calm in a walk in the woods. It was a good decision.
Any hope that Ruud, 24, a steady and resolute Norwegian in his third Grand Slam final in 13 months, would turn Sunday into something other than a crowning glory was dashed at the end of a grinding first set that concluded in Djokovic’s signature fashion. During all these years and hundreds of Grand Slam matches, Djokovic has only lost five times after winning the first set.
Former world No. 1 Andy Roddick said of Djokovic that “first it comes for your legs, then it comes for your soul”.
Ivanisevic added to that assessment on Sunday: “Then they dig your grave and you have a funeral and you’re dead. Bye, bye. Thank you for coming.”
This was about what Djokovic did to Ruud early on Sunday, and he’s on his way to history.
Ruud broke Djokovic’s serve to start the match and rose to an early lead as Djokovic played several shaky matches, slamming balls over the court and pushing balls out as Ruud played the flawless and deceptively dangerous tennis that marked his best moments. his career.
But then Djokovic appeared, whom the tennis world knew and feared decades ago. With Ruud serving at 4-2, close enough to sniff the finish line for the first set, Djokovic plunged into one of those classic rallies, running from corner to corner, back and forth, keeping the point alive long after he’d been out. supposed to end. . He finished the way it often does – with an exhausted opponent struggling for oxygen and throwing a ball into the net.
“A little devastated,” said Rudd.
In most tennis matches, when a set goes to a tiebreaker, the score comes down to a coin flip. That’s not how it works with Djokovic.
Last week, he explained that when a tiebreaker begins, his mind goes into a state of hyperfocus to “stay in the present,” playing every point on its merits and giving nothing away.
He started this game with a perfect forehand down the line, and ended it seven points later with another heartbreaking forehand that Rodha didn’t even bother running on, not that it mattered. When it was over, Djokovic played 55 tiebreakers during this tournament and didn’t make an easy mistake.
For an hour and 22 minutes, Ruud had gone toe-to-toe with Djokovic, matching him in sprints and shooting for long-distance shots, and had nothing but a rubbery set of legs and a damaged psyche to show off. Rudd stuck around the scrap, pushing the match past the three-hour mark. But after that first set, it was just a matter of time.
In the midst of all these wins, it can be hard to remember the stretch of the struggle for Djokovic, even recently. There were those days when he was detained in Australia last year while awaiting his deportation hearing. But there was also that ugly time in 2020, when he accidentally slammed a ball down a judge’s throat and got kicked out of the US Open. The following month, Nadal destroyed him in straight sets in the final of the French Open, which was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. And it looked like Djokovic was headed for another walk in the wilderness.
Instead, he came within one game of achieving a Grand Slam, nearly winning all four Grand Slam tournaments in 2021, and dethroning Nadal at Roland Garros along the way.
He won his first two Grand Slams this year.
“The journey is not over yet,” said Djokovic. “If you win slam titles, why would you even think about ending your career?”
He may be alone with 23 Grand Slam titles, but in his eyes, there is more history to play for.
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