“I felt a special connection with the crowd ever since I arrived in Paris this year,” Novak Djokovic said after his mostly dominant, briefly frightening 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 victory over Andy Murray in the French Open final.
While Djokovic’s win wasn’t unexpected—this was his 13th victory in his last 15 meetings with Murray—the vociferous, one-sided support he received came as something of a surprise. Right from the start on Sunday, “Nole!” rhymed with “Ole!” in Court Philippe Chatrier.
That hasn’t been the norm for Djokovic at the Grand Slams, especially when he’s gone up against the two champions who came before him, and the two most popular players of this century, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Many have said that Djokovic’s “clinical” style of play, as opposed to Federer’s effortless elegance and Rafa’s heart-on-his-sleeve passion, makes him harder to love.
I’ve never been so sure. More than anything else, sports fans want to witness, and be a part of, all-time greatness; in tennis, there’s No. 1, and there’s everyone else. Aside from the appeal of their games, Federer also happens to be the all-time men’s major-title winner, and Nadal the all-time greatest clay-courter.
On Sunday, the fans in Paris knew they were witnessing Djokovic’s own quest for immortality. He was attempting, on the one hand, to join his old rivals Federer and Nadal and become the third player of their era, and just the eighth in history, to complete a career Grand Slam.
At the same time, Djokovic was attempting to one-up Roger and Rafa. Neither of them has won four majors in a row. Djokovic, after shaking off the painful defeat he suffered to Stan Wawrinka in Paris 12 months ago, had bounced back to win three straight Slams. One more win on Sunday and he would be the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four. That’s all-time greatness.
By now, the fans in Paris probably felt as if they had a stake in Djokovic’s success. Three times before, he had lost the final in front of them; three times before, he had gamely held the runner-up plate and held back tears as the fans roared in consolation. Here was a chance to help push him across the finish line.
At first, Djokovic needed all the help he could get. After breaking Murray in the opening game, he began spraying balls and soon found himself down a set to a fired-up opponent.
“I felt great in the warm-up and coming on the court,” Djokovic told John McEnroe afterward. “But I was a bit nervy in the beginning in trying to find my way. I made a lot of unforced errors.”
Ironically, Djokovic was helped by a call that went against him at 3-5 in the first set. While he eventually lost the game, his confrontation with the chair umpire brought a needed edge to his play. From the start of the second set to the end of the fourth, he was a different player; or more precisely, he was Djokovic again. His returns landed deeper and his ground strokes had more pop. As he stepped forward, his opponent was forced to take a step back.
“Once I got into the rhythm,” Djokovic said, “all the way to 5-2 in the fourth, it was really, really great tennis.”
Murray agreed that the shift in court position at the start of the second set was key.
“I was trying to dictate as many points as I can, but not give away any free points as well,” said Murray, describing the precarious balance that Djokovic forces his opponents to maintain.
“I did that for the first hour or so, but then I dropped too far behind the baseline and he started to dictate the points.”
Djokovic mentioned finding “the rhythm,” and that’s a big part of what makes him so tough to face, and, to me, appealing to watch. There’s a relentless, but never rigid, beat to his game. Deep returns lead to heavy crosscourt forehands which lead to pinpoint-accurate down-the-line backhands which lead to opponent-exhausting drop shots. If there’s a beauty in the way Federer smoothly swings through a shot, there’s a beauty in the way Djokovic smoothly ties a series of them together.
And nobody has more. Federer and Nadal can match Djokovic’s forehand, but not his backhand; Murray can match his backhand, but not his forehand. And there isn't anybody who can hit the straight down-the-line forehand like Djokovic. It’s the kind of flexibility that allows you to win four straight majors on three different surfaces.
But winning the fourth, in Paris, was never destined to be easy. In 2013, Djokovic made Murray sweat through a nerve-shattering final game to win Wimbledon; today it was Murray’s turn to return the favor.
Up 5-2 in the fourth, Djokovic couldn’t help flashing a grin as he strode to the sideline. How could the dream possibly not come true now? Two games and a service break later, Djokovic wasn’t grinning anymore. Murray, after looking gassed for the better part of two sets, sprung to life to break serve at 2-5, and saved two match points at 4-5.
“I got a little bit too loose, I must say,” Djokovic said, when it was safe to grin again. “Even though I’m trained to think that it’s only about the next point, I was feeling it.”
On his third match point, though, Djokovic watched as a Murray backhand found the net. He walked a couple of steps, and then lay down on the clay; it looked as if it had taken him a second to realize what had happened. After 12 tries, this was more than a win: It was a catharsis.
“In the last point, I don’t even remember what happened,” Djokovic said. “It’s like my spirit left my body and I was just observing my body fight the last three, four exchanges.
“A thrilling moment, one of the most beautiful I have had in my career.”
After the match, Murray himself said that he was “proud to be a part of this day.”
“This is something that is extremely rare in tennis,” Murray said of the Djoker Slam. “It’s not happened for a very long time, and it’s going to take a long time for it to happen again. Everyone who came here to see it is extremely lucky.”
Djokovic’s need to be adored by the world’s tennis audiences has been overstated. He can get annoyed when a crowd roots against him, but I’ve always thought he does a good job of feeding off the fans who do cheer for him, even if they’re in the minority. Djokovic understands the popularity of Rafa and especially Roger, and he has done just fine with the support he’s been given.
This time, though, Djokovic soaked up the love and gave a little of it back. In a tribute to his friend, Guga Kuerten, he drew a heart in the clay with his racquet and lay down inside it. Djokovic has carved his name into Roland Garros history, and carved his place among the all-time greats.