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Novak Djokovic, the last of the Big 3, begins quest for Slam 23 at Roland Garros
With ever-younger rivals on the rise amid his own relative vulnerability, the 36-year-old No. 3 seed began his Paris campaign with a 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (1) win against Aleksandar Kovacevic.
Published May 29, 2023
WATCH: Novak Djokovic sits down with Tennis Channel after his 2023 Roland Garros first-round win.
“Djokovic is done!” ESPN sports pundit Michael Wilbon shouted on his long-running show Pardon the Interruption last week.
Wilbon is hardly a tennis expert, and his partner on PTI, Tony Kornheiser, quickly reminded him that Djokovic did actually win the last Grand Slam event that was played, in Australia. In fact, he has won his last 14 matches at the majors, dating back to his loss to Rafael Nadal in Paris last year.
So we can feel comfortable saying that Wilbon is getting over his skis in pronouncing Djokovic kaput. Yet even in that exaggeration, there was a kernel of…possibility. Djokovic recently turned 36, and he has had a scuffling run of form for much of 2023, going 5-3 during the clay-court season and failing to reach a final since Melbourne. He also had a leg injury to start the year, and an elbow injury this spring.
“Things are different than they were 10 years ago in terms of how my body is maybe responding to the schedule,” Djokovic says. “You know, I’m playing season after season.”
Most surprising, and potentially ominous, to me, was his performance in Rome, a tournament where he has reached the final 12 times and won the title six times. Instead of using the week at the Foro Italico to shore up his game for Roland Garros, the way he always has, he lost for the second straight time to Holger Rune, in a match where he couldn’t find the answer to a player who is just a little over half his age.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Djokovic listened as Nadal, the man he calls his biggest rival, dropped twin bombshells: (1) He won’t play Roland Garros for the first time since 2004, and (2) 2024 will likely be his final season on tour. Djokovic says the news hit him in two opposing ways.
On the one hand, he’s frankly pleased that Rafa won’t be in a tournament that he has won 14 times.
“I don’t like seeing him in the draw of Roland Garros, to be honest,” Djokovic said with a smile this weekend. “I have not had so much success against him [here].”
On the other hand, hearing Nadal say good-bye made Djokovic feel as if a part of his own sporting life is coming to a close.
“He was one of the most impactful people that I’ve ever had in my career, the growth of my career, and me as a player,” Djokovic said of Nadal. “Definitely a great motivation factor for me to keep competing and keep pushing each other, you know, ‘Who’s gonna do better?’”
“It made me think about my career and how long I’m going to play. Just reflecting on it, I felt also a little bit emotional about what he was saying.”
Now that Roger Federer is gone and Nadal has one foot out the door, Djokovic has begun to enter a new phase: He’s the last of the Big 3, soldiering on alone, in a world of ever-younger rivals, like Rune, Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner, who are upping the athletic quotient in tennis as we speak. That may seem like a more daunting task without Rafa to help shoulder the load.
It seemed he would be able to keep winning a Slam or two every year for essentially as long as he wanted. But with the rise of this younger set of players, and Djokovic’s relative vulnerability this spring, I’ve started to wonder how long that’s going to be true. Steve Tignor on Novak Djokovic
For me, it has always seemed as if Djokovic was destined to win the Slam chase and wear the GOAT crown because he was better than Nadal on grass and hard courts, and his body was less banged up. It seemed he would be able to keep winning a Slam or two every year for essentially as long as he wanted. But with the rise of this younger set of players, and Djokovic’s relative vulnerability this spring, I’ve started to wonder how long that’s going to be true. A great champion seems unstoppable—right up until the moment he’s stopped.
All of which makes this year’s Roland Garros an intriguing test for Djokovic. Will Rafa’s absence make him more determined to cash in when he can, or will it make him more nervous about getting Slam No. 23 and standing alone in the men’s major-title race for the first time, after nearly 20 years of chasing Federer and Nadal?
The tournament will also be a test of Djokovic’s current Slam-centric view of his career. He said this weekend that the majors are a “whole different ball game,” and so far he has backed that up. Winning at Roland Garros after the clay season he’s had so far would be proof that he’s still the master of this format. Losing, despite Nadal’s absence, could be seen as a sign of the aging process, and the ATP’s generational transition, finally catching up to him when it matters. Wilbon would claim vindication.
So far, though, Djokovic has been the picture of serene confidence in Paris. He says he’s in perfect health, that best-of-five favors him, and the day off in between each round allows him to recover. For the most part, that was borne out in his 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (1) win against an overmatched Aleksandar Kovacevic on Monday. Djokovic hit 41 winners, made 22 errors, and never trailed in a set.
Still, it wouldn’t be a Djokovic match without a bump or two in the road. He was broken serving for the match at 5-4 in the third set. He was booed when he cupped his hand to his ear and thrust his first into the air after winning a point. He gave the fans a sarcastic racquet clap when they applauded one of his errors. But he found his lockdown form again to close it out in a third-set tiebreaker.
“He went for a little wander, but he’s wandered back,” as one of the commentators put it.
Some clinical play, and some stormy seas. Will that be Djokovic’s next two weeks in microcosm? It will be as interesting as ever to find out how the last of the Big 3 navigates these new and uncharted career waters on his own.