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The Rally: Is Novak Djokovic's Roland Garros triumph the most remarkable of his 19 Slam-title runs?
A look at all the little things that make the Serb the nonpareil competitor he is, after Djokovic came through successive four-hour wins over Rafael Nadal and Stefanos Tsitsipas to summit the top of the French Open mountain.
Published Jun 13, 2021
HIGHLIGHTS: Djokovic mounts two-set comeback over Tsitsipas to win second French Open
After two sets of this final, I was getting ready to write about how age finally mattered in men’s tennis; how the Big 3 were finally starting to slow down and youth was finally being rewarded; how a new generation was finally ready to knock the old guard off the mountaintop—or at least the mountaintop known at Roland Garros.
Three sets later and the story had turned 180 degrees. With 34-year-old Novak Djokovic’s 6-7 (6), 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 win over 22-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas, the Big 3 reigned supreme for yet another Slam. It was the older player, rather than the younger, who had an extra gear, who bounced back from a four-hour, 11-minute semifinal and got stronger as he went through a final that also lasted four hours and 11 minutes. It was the older player, rather than the younger, who seemed to reach a new career peak, and put together perhaps the most impressive of his 19 Slam-title runs.
Looking back, despite the fact that Tsitsipas was up two sets to love, I don’t feel like he blew this match, or that he could have done much to change the outcome. At 1-1 in the third set, Tsitsipas reached 30-30 on Djokovic’s serve. If he breaks there, maybe Djokovic hangs his head a little more, and Tsitsipas has a chance to close it out in three. Instead, he missed a routine forehand long. In the next game, Djokovic dug in and broke Tsitsipas on his fifth break point. He never gave the momentum back after that.
Djokovic won with his rock-like consistency, as always, but too many times we hear him described merely as a “wall,” or that he’s “putting it on autopilot.” There’s a lot more nuance to his game that that. His drop shot is deadly, and underrated. He broke serve in the fifth set by hitting his backhand slice just a little harder than he usually does, which surprised Tsitsipas. In the final games, Djokovic hit with more depth and pace than he had all day. And after Tsitsipas brought the crowd to its feet by saving a championship point with a brilliant backhand, Djokovic came right back and played the next point with a perfect mix of aggression and margin and finished it with a forehand winner. By the time he had held serve for the title, it felt to me as if there had never been any chance that he would let himself lose today, no matter what the score was, or what Tsitsipas did.
What did you think, Joel?
Call it eight hours and 22 minutes that shook the world; yet again, another earth-shattering moment from Djokovic. Because he has had to vault past both Nadal and Federer so many times, Djokovic has made a strong case for himself as the greatest competitor in tennis history.
If it at one level it was remarkable to watch Djokovic topple Nadal one night and then rally from two sets to love down versus Tsitsipas, it certainly wasn’t surprising. Even once Djokovic lost the second set in such a lackluster fashion, it was hard to believe he was going to wither in the third.
What was surprising to me was how swiftly the fourth went. That stage seemed the moment when things unraveled for the underdog, Tsitsipas mostly letting Djokovic steamroll to take it into a fifth. By the time the last set started, it was clear that Tsitsipas was running out of ideas, that Djokovic had boxed him into a corner.
And here is the genius of Novak that will mark his legacy: He transcends such terms as “offense” and “defense.” Those words don’t do him justice. Tennis’ super-geniuses don’t just win. They take the game to new levels of quality and redefine how we view excellence.
So let’s consider this concept: Federer has revealed upgraded and innovative shot-making. Nadal has displayed new levels of intensity and a forehand like none other. And Novak? He’s upgraded what we talk about when we talk about some of the game’s most elemental skills—balance, posture, footwork. These are the skills that over time, smother one opponent after another. Both Nadal and Tsitsipas increasingly felt the court getting smaller and smaller.
To think that Djokovic is now half-way to a calendar Slam (for the second time in his career) is amazing. But again, not surprising.
Steve, surely Djokovic is the favorite at Wimbledon. What kind of playing style can derail him on the grass?
Djokovic will surely be the favorite at Wimbledon, and he’ll have a lot to play for: A calendar-year Grand Slam, as you say, and a chance to tie Federer and Nadal with 20 majors. Plus, he’s the two-time defending champion. He could potentially suffer a letdown; the last time he won the French Open, he went out to Sam Querrey at Wimbledon in the first week. Another big server on a hot streak could certainly put a scare into him, and I do think Federer will be a factor there this year. We all remember how close Federer came to beating Djokovic the last time they played on Centre Court.
As for comparisons between Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic, I’d say Djokovic has been the best at winning—at surviving matches he doesn’t look like he’s going to survive. You could see it in the final game today. Tsitsipas was the player who hit the most spectacular shot, a down the line backhand winner to save match point. But it was Djokovic who came back and out the clamps back down right away on the next point; his forehand winner wasn’t as memorable as Tsitsipas’ backhand, but it was a perfectly constructed and executed rally.
Which brings me back to Tsitsipas. While I think Djokovic was essentially destined to win this match, and showed that he is still the better player, Tsitsipas also showed that he’s going to win Slams eventually. He has the head and the game for it. Coming in, I didn’t think he could hurt Djokovic in the way that Stan Wawrinka did in the 2015 final, but for two sets Tsitsipas did—with his serve, with his forehand, with his speed, with his net play. And unlike Alexander Zverev, who looked like a deer in the headlights when he went up two sets to none in last year’s US Open final, I didn’t feel like Tsitsipas shrunk from the moment today. He just played a better opponent.
Do you think of Tsitsipas any differently after this match, Joel, and what are you looking forward to on the men’s side at Wimbledon?
Wimbledon has the potential to be glorious. Besides Djokovic, there’s Federer on his most comfortable surface, a hungry Nadal, even an uncertain Andy Murray (yes, I must still consider a two-time winner) and a host of contenders such as Tsitsipas, all seeking that first Slam title. And we haven’t even addressed all the story lines on the women’s side.
Even more, how fantastic that after a two-year absence, tennis’ most significant tournament is returning. This indeed will be a moment for the tennis community to gather at the sport’s cathedral and collectively take a breath in recognition of all these last 15 months have meant, both for tennis and the world overall. What better spot for tennis to do this than Wimbledon? I’m curious to see what kind of ceremonies the All England Club will conduct to mark this occasion. After all, when it comes to global statements and powerful rituals, no venue in tennis does this better than Wimbledon.
OK, now back to Tsitsipas. I was more concerned with him after the US Open, following a heartbreaking loss to Borna Coric, a 5-1 fourth set lead and six match points all vanishing. A year earlier, Tsitsipas lost an epic to Wawrinka at Roland Garros. In the wake of those two defeats, I was worried what scars they would leave on Tsitsipas. But he found redemption rapidly, making great comebacks at Roland Garros last fall and subsequently rallying from two sets to love down to beat Nadal at the Australian Open.
Tsitsipas also played great throughout the clay court season, proving my longstanding belief that Roland Garros is the Slam that requires the most competitive homework; that is, sustained match play leading into the tournament. So to me, Tsitsipas has proven himself a legitimate contender everywhere he plays.
I’ll be curious to see what he learns from this final. This is where I’d really like to dig into the relationship between a player and his coaching team. Do they study key points? Do they assess certain shot selection decisions, taking the score into account? Do they address bigger picture issues related to footwork and other techniques? Or is the tape of the match shelved, never to be looked at, lest the outcome upset the player?
In team sports, these answers often become public knowledge, the coach waxing about things like defensive formations, situational substitution, execution and other topics. But in tennis, match assessment from the actual player’s end is difficult to attain. Two weeks from now, Tsitsipas will conduct a press conference at Wimbledon and be asked what he took away from his run at Roland Garros. Quite likely, terms like “belief” or “the process” or “confidence” will surface.
But we all know there’s a deeper analysis required – particularly if a player hopes to topple the likes of Djokovic at a major. It will be great to see how this all plays out at SW 19.