This French Open was supposed to be the one. The one that would move Rafael Nadal ahead in the all-time Grand Slam standings for the first time. It was supposed to be No 21 for Nadal. Instead it’s No 19 for Djokovic and there’s only now one Grand Slam title between three of the greatest players of all time.
This was a mountain that many thought Djokovic would never scale again. It’s been five years since his first victory at the French Open. He’s lost in the quarter-finals twice since then, made the semi-finals once, and was convincingly beaten in the final last year by Nadal. But Djokovic scaled his self-proclaimed Mount Everest in beating Nadal in thrilling fashion in the last four, and then stuck his flag atop the peak after coming from two sets down to beat Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final.
With his 19th Grand Slam title now secured, it seems unthinkable that Djokovic won't surpass both Nadal and Roger Federer in the all-time standings. Maybe this year, maybe by this time next year. Even if he never does, few could deny the magnitude of what he has already achieved.
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In simply beating Nadal, Djokovic accomplished what many have deemed the toughest feat in tennis, maybe in all sports. Nadal was 105-2 at Roland Garros and had not lost a match there since 2015 before being toppled by Djokovic.
In beating Tsitsipas, Djokovic has accomplished what no other man has managed to achieve in the Open era – winning all four Grand Slams twice. Federer hasn’t managed it, nor has Nadal, nor did Pete Sampras, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors. None of the other greats.
He’s also the first player since 1949 to win a Grand Slam having come from two sets down in two matches.
The fact he didn’t sweep through the draw without dropping a set doesn’t make victory any less sweet for Djokovic. In fact, overcoming such adversity along the way makes it even more of a statement Djokovic win.
The world No 1 has almost made comebacks an art over the last 18 months. He fought off Dominic Thiem in five sets in the Australian Open final in 2020, did the same to Taylor Fritz in Melbourne earlier this year, and then won in Paris against Lorenzo Musetti and Tsitsipas after dropping the opening two sets. What especially stood out in his five-set wins at the French Open – and also his four-set semi-final victory over Nadal – was the way Djokovic finished the matches so strongly, finding more consistent depth, hitting more winners and grinding his opponents down. It was almost as if had game planned to find another gear, or two, after the end of the second sets.
"Obviously there's always two voices inside," he revealed after his win over Tsitsipas. "There is one telling you that you can't do it, that it's done, it's finished. That voice was pretty strong after that second set. So I felt that was a time for me to actually vocalise the other voice and try to suppress the first one that was saying I can't make it.
I told myself I can do it, encouraged myself. I strongly started to repeat that inside of my mind, tried to live it with my entire being.
"Once I started playing in that third set, especially in the first few games, I saw where my game is at, it kind of supported that second voice that was more positive, more encouraging. After that there was not much of a doubt for me."
There was a doubt whether Djokovic would ever win this tournament again, having not done so since 2016 and only having reached the final once in that time. But he managed to hit new heights over the last two weeks, finding an incredible level to beat Nadal and then overcoming Tsitsipas when it looked like his semi-final exertions might have taken it out of him. For those keeping track in the GOAT debate, this was another huge tick for Djokovic.
Contrast Djokovic’s five-set efforts to Nadal, who saw a two-set lead slip away against Tsitsipas in the Australian Open quarter-finals and also lost to Djokovic after a commanding start in the first set. Nadal will likely be the favourite again when the French Open rolls around again next year, but whether he challenges for another Grand Slam title before then looks open to debate.
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The same could not be said for Tsitsipas, who has been on an upward curve after his disappointing third-round loss to Borna Coric at the 2020 US Open. Before making the final of the French Open he had made the semi-finals of the previous two Grand Slams and he is now up to a career-high No 4 in the world. He has also won the most matches (39) of any player in 2021. His time at the majors will certainly come.
For Djokovic the question now is how many more Grand Slams he will win in the time he has left in his career. Eurosport’s Mats Wilander believes Djokovic will be the favourite at both Wimbledon and the US Open, and he would surely also start as the favourite at next year’s Australian Open, having won the tournament for the last three years. If he were to win all three that would put him on 22 Grand Slams, two ahead of Nadal and Federer. How many more could he win? How many more would he be motivated to win?
At the moment his motivation appears sky high, and Wimbledon could now be the one where he puts his name alongside Federer and Nadal on 20 Grand Slam titles.
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