Nearly a decade ago, Novak Djokovic had thoughts of walking away from tennis after struggling to manage the weight of expectations that come with being a Grand Slam champion. Instead, allowing himself time to process an emotional loss at Roland Garros, Djokovic found liberation, beginning his journey to becoming his generation's most poised player under pressure.
At the 2010 French Open, Djokovic was ousted by Austria’s Jurgen Melzer in the quarterfinals. For the Serbian, it marked the ninth straight major he was unable to reach the final after lifting his maiden Slam trophy at the 2008 Australian Open, a surprise given his rise to No. 2 earlier in the year.
“I cried after this knockout,” Djokovic told Sky Sports Italia (translated). “It was a bad moment, I wanted to leave tennis because I saw everything black.”
The loss to Melzer was understandably crushing. Djokovic let a two-sets-to-love lead slip for the first time in his career and his opponent was contesting his first major quarterfinal, having never been beyond the third round in his previous 31 main draw appearances. But in due time, Djokovic managed to accept where he was at psychologically, and what needed to be done in order to move forward.
“It was a transformation,” stated Djokovic. “Because after that defeat, I freed myself.”
His 180-degree turn is most evident in his head-to-head series with chief rivals Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. As of June 2010, Djokovic trailed Nadal, 14-7, and Federer, 9-5, and was a combined 1-8 against the pair on the Grand Slam stage. He soon defeated Federer at the 2010 US Open (having lost to the Swiss the prior three years in New York) and would get his first of three consecutive Slam final victories over Nadal at 2011 Wimbledon. He currently leads Nadal, 29-26, and Federer, 27-23, and hasn’t lost to either at a major since the 2014 French Open, combining for nine wins—four against Federer with Slam trophies on the line.
“I knew I could do more, but I lost the most important games against Federer and Nadal,” Djokovic said. “From that moment [in Paris], I took the pressure off. I started playing more aggressively. Here was the turning point.”
Djokovic beat Federer en route to his 17th major trophy at this year’s Australian Open and held an 18-0 record in 2020 before play was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.