Top10Matches_2021-5-wide

Over November 29-December 3 and December 6-10, we'll run down our Top 10 Matches of the 2021 season.

No. 10 | No. 9 | No. 8 | No. 7 | No. 6

After two sets of this year’s Roland Garros men’s final, the narratives seemed clear: Age mattered again in tennis; the Big Three were slowing down and youth was being rewarded; new generation was finally ready to knock the old guard off the mountaintop—or at least the mountaintop known as Roland Garros.

Three sets later, and those narratives had been completely reversed. With 34-year-old Novak Djokovic’s 6-7 (2), 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 win over 22-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas, the legends reigned supreme for yet another Slam. It was the older player, rather than the younger, who found an extra gear, who bounced back from a 4 hour, 11 minute semifinal against Rafael Nadal and got stronger as he went through a final that also lasted 4 hours and 11 minutes. It was the older player, rather than the younger, who scaled new career heights and made his 19th major title his most impressive yet.

Just as remarkable was the fact that there was very little Tsitsipas, despite being up two sets to love, could have done to change the outcome. The turnaround came with Djokovic serving at 1-1 in the third set. Tsitsipas reached 30-30 in that game. If he wins that points, and breaks serve, it’s possible that the result could have been different. Instead, Tsitsipas missed an easy forehand long; he didn’t know it then, but that was his last chance at victory. In the next game, Djokovic dug his heels in, and broke Tsitsipas on his fifth break point. The momentum was his for the first time, and he never relinquished it.

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HIGHLIGHTS: How Djokovic stormed back from two sets down

Djokovic won this match with his usual rock-like consistency, but he also showed off the underrated nuance in his game. He used his drop shot effectively. 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 match 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.

“Everything is possible,” Djokovic likes to say, and he said it again after this match. Who could contradict him? He has had other amazing final weekends at Grand Slams, including back-to-back wins over Nadal and Roger Federer in New York and back-to-back epics against Andy Murray and Nadal in Melbourne. But this one came at the Slam where he has had, relatively speaking, his least success. It was also the weekend that may have sealed his eventual status as the greatest male tennis player of all time. With the title, Djokovic became the first man since Rod Laver to win each of the majors twice, an achievement that sets him apart from Nadal and Roger Federer.

“I couldn’t be happier and more satisfied with this kind of scenario in the last 48 hours,” Djokovic said after this final. “Probably ranks at the top three all-time achievements and experiences that I had in my professional tennis career.”

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With the title, Djokovic became the first man since Rod Laver to win each of the majors twice, an achievement that sets him apart from Nadal and Federer.

Numbers will ultimately decide who wears the mythical GOAT crown, but great players are more than their numbers. Over the course of his 8 hours and 22 minutes on court in Paris, we had to chance to see why Djokovic may go down as the greatest male player of all time. For me, his GOAT moment came in the final game against Tsitsipas.

After four hours, and after coming back from two sets down, Djokovic reached championship point, only to see Tsitsipas erase it with a down-the-line backhand winner that curled in from the doubles alley. How did Djokovic react? He put together what might have been his best, most aggressive, most confident, most logical rally of the match, which he ended with a forehand winner.

It wasn’t a point that said “everything is possible.” It was a point that said, no matter how far behind he was, and no matter what his opponent did, only one thing was possible in this match: A Djokovic win.