Amersfoort, a small town in Holland known for its historic architecture, is just over 1,000 miles from Belgrade, Serbia. But for a 19-year-old Serbian, on this summer day in 2006, it was figuratively light years from where he had been, and where he was headed.
In Amersfoort, site of the Dutch Open, the boy stood one point away from tennis manhood—his first ATP Tour singles title. He bounced the ball on the red clay. Then he bounced it 15 more times. Eventually, that number would greatly diminish. But at this moment, an excellent tennis adventure was only just beginning.
The teen on the brink was Novak Djokovic. He had started 2006 ranked No. 83 in the world. But as his opponents that year would note, all the signs for an ascent were in place: the crisp groundstrokes, the exemplary balance, superb movement and, most of all, the desire to excel. At Roland Garros, Djokovic reached his first Grand Slam quarterfinal, along the way taking out such notables as Fernando Gonzalez, Tommy Haas and Gael Monfils. A month later came a round-of-16 run at Wimbledon, the Djokovic victims including veterans Tommy Robredo and Mikhail Youzhny.
Now, in Amersfoort, he’d reached his first ATP Tour final, getting there without the loss of a set. To earn that breakthrough victory, he’d have to get past 37th-ranked Nicolas Massu, a formidable clay-courter who at that point had won six titles, including the 2003 Dutch Open and a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics. But if Massu had the edge in experience, he was well aware how skilled his opponent was.
“He faced me as an equal,” Massu said ten years later, “We had already trained beforehand, but in the match his spectacular potential was noticeable.”
Djokovic raced to a 4-1 lead. Massu rallied to 4-all, but was unable to convert a break point. With Massu serving at 5-6, Djokovic failed to convert two set points—and then went down 3-0 in the tiebreaker. From there, though, he won seven of the next nine points to take the set.
In the second set, Djokovic broke at 3-3. At 5-4, 40-30, on his second championship point, a six-shot rally ended with a long Massu forehand. It had taken two hours and 41 minutes. An elated Djokovic knelt to the ground and raised his index figure in triumph. One for first title? One for his desired world ranking? It didn’t matter.
“It’s been an amazing week for me,” said Djokovic. “I will always remember this tournament in Amersfoort.”
Said Massu in 2016, “I thought he’ll surely be in the future in the Top 5 in the future. He had it all: the game and a winning mentality.”
Djokovic would finish 2006 ranked No. 16 in the world. A year later, he’d soar to No. 3. Amersfoort was the first of a current tally of 79—in the Open era, Djokovic trails only Jimmy Connors, Roger Federer, Ivan Lendl, and Rafael Nadal.