Novak Djokovic, French Open Winner and Likely the Best Ever
Clay-court tennis is an endurance sport. Points can go on for a long, long time. The crushed red brick that coats the surface of a clay court slows a tennis ball down; that makes it difficult to get a ball past an opponent by taking it early, on the short hop, and swatting it hard, as players do on the faster hard courts and on grass. Bounces on clay are high, especially when the ball is struck with topspin, which gives it a heavy feeling—and hitting that heavy ball back can tire a shoulder and arm. Meanwhile, changing direction on clay, which is slippery when dried by a warm afternoon’s sun, strains the lower back and glutes. Drop shots, loaded with backspin, are a weapon on clay, and retrieving them (or attempting to) means lots of sprints to the net. All of it—the dashes forward, the struggles with heavy topspin, the near-endless rallies filled with stopping and sliding to run right, then left, then right again—has a way of fraying one’s focus. The mind depletes, along with the body.
Novak Djokovic won the men’s final of the French Open in five sets on Sunday, beating Stefanos Tsitsipas. Djokovic’s skyhook of a winner on championship point, more than four hours after the match began, capped a tournament run that was the most remarkable display of clay-court endurance I have ever seen. His fourth-round match against the Italian teen phenom Lorenzo Musetti went to a fifth set, before Musetti, after four games, possibly experiencing cramps and back pain—or possibly just convinced he was not going to win a point again—retired. Djokovic’s quarterfinal match, against the Italian slugger Matteo Berrettini, lasted four sets; both the third, which Djokovic lost in a tiebreak, and the fourth, which he eked out 7–5, unfolded as gruelling punch-outs. And then, in the semifinal, Djokovic faced the most difficult task the sport has to offer: defeating Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros, where Nadal’s record, coming into the match, was 105–2.
Djokovic took the semifinal in four sets. The third of those four sets ranks among the finest ninety or so minutes of tennis ever played on clay, and was a high point of the best tennis rivalry of this era. Djokovic and Nadal have played each other fifty-eight times—Djokovic leads, 30–28—and they can anticipate one another’s shots. In that third set, each pushed the other farther and farther past the sidelines, with topspin forehands and sharply angled backhands—shots that, somehow, got returned, elongating points and wowing the five thousand spectators who, under pandemic restrictions, had been allowed inside Court Philippe Chatrier. Owing to COVID-19, there is currently an 11 P.M. curfew in Paris, but, as the match stretched and stretched, the French government waived the curfew for those in attendance. When the permission to remain was announced, a rhythmic chant began: “Merci, Macron! Merci, Macron!” The majestic set went to a tiebreak, as it seemed destined to, and ultimately came down to one shot: a volley that Nadal could have dropped into an open court, but which he struck long, putting Djokovic ahead 5–3. Djokovic went on to win the tiebreak and then, in the final set, to vanquish Nadal, who was worn down and deflated, 6–2.
Worn down, deflated: these are keywords at the French Open. Tsitsipas won the first set of the final in a tiebreak, and then the second set decisively, with deep ground strokes and superior serves. Djokovic’s footwork was uncharacteristically unstable; his errors came in bunches, and he seemed strangely distracted. (Perhaps he was shaken up by a tumble that he took just wide of a net post near the end of the first set; or perhaps he was thinking of the French Open that he played six years ago, when he defeated Nadal in a quarterfinal match, only to lose the final to Stan Wawrinka.) Heading into the final, Tsitsipas had been doing a lot of winning. At the age of twenty-two, he has grown into a terrific player on any surface, but especially on clay. He won the Monte Carlo Open, which kicks off the men’s clay-court season, and reached the final of the Barcelona Open, where he lost to Nadal in three sets. He’s arrived at the top of men’s tennis, and has the makings of a No. 1.
If he had won one more set on Sunday, he would have become the youngest player to win a men’s major since Juan Martín del Potro, at age twenty, defeated Roger Federer at the 2009 U.S. Open. But the man who was on the other side of the net from Tsitsipas on Sunday has spent more weeks at No. 1 than any player since the modern ranking system began, nearly forty-eight years ago. He has remained No. 1 by relentlessly refusing, in match after match, to fade away. In the fourth game of the third set, Djokovic, moving more smoothly and returning better, forced Tsitsipas to save one break point, then another, still another, and then one more. And Tsitsipas did save those points, with resolute defense. But Djokovic earned a fifth break point, and this time he won it, when a Tsitsipas backhand sailed out. The game turned the match around. Tsitsipas, who had broken Djokovic’s serve twice in the first set and twice again in the second, never broke it again. He began muttering to himself and smacking his head with his palm. His returns of stronger Djokovic serves fell shorter. As Djokovic ran him around, again and again, he took deep breaths through his mouth. He faded, not entirely but clearly enough, and as Djokovic had not. The final score line shows it: Djokovic d. Tsitsipas, 6–7, 2–6, 6–3, 6–2, 6–4.
Barbora Krejčíková, of the Czech Republic, faced an endurance test, too, on her way to winning the women’s championship. Her semifinal match, against the Greek dynamo Maria Sakkari, seemed as though it would go on forever—and it sort of did. Per French Open rules, the match could not be settled by a tiebreak at six-all, but had to continue until one of the players won by two games, which Krejčíková appeared to do, at 9–7—until the chair umpire overturned a call by the line judge, who had ruled that a Sakkari forehand went long. (The umpire pointed to a ball mark on the baseline in making his call.) Krejčíková ended the match moments later with a backhand winner, by which time the two had been playing for more than three hours—and, by total number of games, longer than all but a few matches in French Open history.
It was compelling tennis, if not sharp or clean tennis. Neither player is ranked in the top ten, and neither had ever reached the singles semifinals of a major. There were nerves, and the nervous errors that result. The same was true of the final, in which Krejčíková defeated Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, 6–1, 2–6, 6–4. Pavlyuchenkova, now twenty-nine, was a prodigy as a teen, winning three junior Grand Slams; she reached No. 13 in the world a decade ago. But inconsistency has plagued her; there have been too many first-round losses at too many events. She never got further at a major than the quarterfinals until last week. She is a powerful ball striker, one who feeds off an opponent’s pace—which proved a liability against Krejčíková, who, unusually, likes to slice her forehand along with her backhand, and who launches high-arcing moonballs from time to time, and who can hit drop shots from just about anywhere. Krejčíková’s focus took a walk in the second set, but returned in time for her to win her first Grand Slam. Then, on Sunday morning, she put on her kit one more time, and, with a partner, her fellow-Czech Kateřina Siniaková, won the women’s doubles final. It was the first time that a woman has earned both the singles and doubles trophies at the French Open since Mary Pierce did it, in 2000.
Novak Djokovic made history, too: he became the only member of the Big Three to have won each of the majors twice. Of course, the history he’s chasing is bigger than that. He has now won nineteen majors, one shy of the men’s record shared by Nadal and Federer. He’s halfway to an in-year Grand Slam—something that, in the men’s game, only Rod Laver has accomplished in the Open Era. He holds winning over-all records against not only Nadal but Federer, too. He recently celebrated his thirty-fourth birthday. Endurance, for him, means lasting long enough to leave the game knowing that he has been the greatest. It’s getting harder and harder to argue otherwise.