PARIS – Just two days ago it was widely believed that the toughest job in tennis was beating Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros.
But after a breathtaking win over Stefanos Tsitsipas in the French Open final on Sunday after losing Nadal in the semifinals, maybe the mantra should be changed: the toughest task in tennis is to beat Novak Djokovic in a grand slam event.
Tsitsipas, the leader of the so-called Next Gen, believed he had beaten himself and won the first two sets in the finale on Sunday under perfect, sunny skies. Djokovic, who had taken more than four hours to wear Nadal down in an epic semi-final, looked exhausted.
We should have known better. For the umpteenth time in his career, Djokovic was most dangerous when he looked finished – he pulled back once more and took a 6-7, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 win.
The 34-year-old now has 19 Grand Slam titles, down from the record of 20 held by Nadal and Roger Federer. He is the first man in the Open era to have won all four Grand Slams at least twice. And whisper it, but he’s halfway to the coveted achievement of winning all four slams in one calendar year, which only Rod Laver achieved on the men’s side in the Open era.
“The level of tennis in the last 48 hours has not been easy,” said Djokovic on Sunday. “I think beating two great champions [Nadal and Tsitsipas] was very hard physically and mentally. Once again a dream comes true. I will not stop here, I will carry on. “
Tsitsipas also needed five sentences to get past Alexander Zverev in the semifinals.
In his first Grand Slam final, Tsitsipas was strong and could compete with Djokovic in the first set. He saved a target value of 6: 5 and then another one in the tiebreak as he progressed. In the second, Tsitsipas stepped up again, and when he doubled his lead, the world’s number one looked devastated.
Djokovic took a toilet break after the second set and when he came back things changed.
“He suddenly came back to me like a different player,” said Tsitsipas. “He played really well, he didn’t give me any space. I felt physically, everything on the pitch” [for him] felt a lot better than before. I had the feeling that he could suddenly read my game. Good for him; he did well getting there. “
Although Tsitsipas continued to fight, the real Djokovic had returned. The Serb improved his game by several levels, with his drop shot and ball contact on the net being particularly effective.
“After that [break], I felt like I was getting into his head, “said Djokovic.” I feel like I’m swinging through the ball better. The momentum was on my side – it shifted. From that moment there was no looking back. “
Federer could likely sympathize with Tsitsipas after experiencing Djokovic’s resilience firsthand more than once. In five-set duels at the US Open in 2010 and 2011, Djokovic saved two match points in the decisive set before defeating Federer. Then, perhaps most famously, Federer failed to convert consecutive match points in his 2019 Wimbledon final.
When Djokovic has his back to the wall when he looks exhausted, he is like Muhammad Ali on the ropes, just a moment away from jumping back and changing things in his favor. His two comebacks from two sets at this French Open made him the first player in the Open era (since 1968) to make multiple 2-0 comebacks on the way to winning a major single, according to the ESPN Stats & Information Group. Djokovic is also the third player in men’s tennis history to make multiple 2-0 comebacks on the way to winning a big title. The others are Henri Cochet in 1927 Wimbledon (three comebacks down from two sets) and Ted Schroeder in 1949 Wimbledon, per SIG.
Tsitsipas summarized what it is like to compete against him and what it takes to win a Grand Slam title.
“What I learned today is that to finish the game you have to win three sets, not two,” he said. “Two sentences don’t really mean anything. It is still one of them to win the entire game.
“It’s all about perseverance; if you can keep up with perseverance, keep that level for a long time, then of course that’s what’s needed in a Grand Slam. I played two good sets. I wouldn’t consider them incredible I just played really well. It wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough. This is a Grand Slam for you. That’s how it is. “
Three-time Roland Garros champion Mats Wilander said on Eurosport that Djokovic’s ability to pull himself together from difficult situations was unprecedented.
“I’m not sure what he says to himself when he has two sentences to make love – can he completely forget about the score or is it that he spent two hours with someone on the pitch and now knows exactly what to do ? to do?” said the Swede.
“He makes the right shots at the right time, he looks fresher as the game progresses. He’s so clever and he’s so calm these days. He looks unbeatable in the third, fourth and fifth games.”
Tsitsipas should console himself with his first Grand Slam final and move up to fourth place on the career leaderboard with the update of the list on Monday.
For Djokovic, however, the pursuit of ultimate greatness continues. He will be the favorite to win Wimbledon, which begins in two weeks, with a chance to equate Federer and Nadal in 20 Grand Slams.
If he succeeds, he will then go to the US Open to break the record and complete the calendar year slam. Few would bet against him.
“I think he has a chance to win the Grand Slam this year,” said Djokovic’s coach Marian Vajda on Sunday. “I am very sure.”