Nole, all day: Djokovic pushes his way into tennis immortality
Look at that cover photo. Look at that smile from Serbia’s greatest athlete. They are both worth more than 10,000 words.
Novak Djokovic, Coupe des Mousquetaires firmly and finally in his own mitts, could finally melt into satisfied relaxation. The one nicknamed Nole could — at long last — savor the blissful relief of completing his long climb of the French Open alps.
That long alpine climb was thwarted near the summit a year ago on the first Sunday of June. Interestingly enough, the alpine journey was stopped by a Swiss man. (Four years earlier, a different Swiss man stood in Djokovic’s way in Paris.)
The 2015 loss to Stan Wawrinka — a man whose last name was not Nadal — represented the kind of moment which can easily lead a hugely accomplished athlete to wonder if the fates have conspired against him. (This is not a reference to Djokovic, though many readers will jump to that conclusion. It applies to any athlete, not to him specifically.)
Bjorn Borg kept trying to climb the mountain at the U.S. Open, on different surfaces against different opponents in different finals. He came close, but couldn’t win a third set in a championship match. His failures in New York certainly played a role (perhaps not the central one, but clearly a supporting one) in driving him away from tennis at a comparatively early age. Had Borg won the 1980 U.S. Open final against John McEnroe, how different would his career — and the history of tennis — have become?
Ivan Lendl’s game was markedly unsuited for Wimbledon, or more precisely, the version of Wimbledon which existed in the 1980s, with a less robust variety of grass which easily gave way to a chewed-up playing surface. Lendl’s big takeback on his forehand enabled him to bludegon the ball on clay and cement (and carpet), but not on an uneven and torn surface in which any bounce during the second week of the tournament represented an invitation to disaster. Lendl knew he had to prepare religiously for Wimbledon if he was ever going to win it. He reached two finals, but a youngster named Boris Becker and a revenge-minded Australian named Pat Cash denied him in 1986 and 1987. Lendl was something of a cursed figure at Wimbledon, and he never completed the career Grand Slam as a result.
Pete Sampras was great enough to win 14 majors, but weak enough to not win at least one of them at the French Open. The greatest server in the history of men’s tennis couldn’t always blast his way out of trouble on red dirt, and so when the discussions of the greatest players of all time emerge, Sampras — certainly in the top six — will always confront that one glaring deficit on his resume.
So many greats of the game never won Roland Garros, and never won all four major tournaments. Yes, most rational tennis fans thought that after losing to Wawrinka, Djokovic (with Rafael Nadal at a more delicate and brittle stage of his career and Roger Federer focused on Wimbledon) would return to the French Open final. However, as history shows us, what seems logical — a great player winning a signature event at least once in a career — doesn’t always come to pass.
Players’ career achievements might deserve a given crown, but the players themselves don’t deserve a specific championship… not until they actually earn it.
Novak Djokovic had to climb that mountain.
Sunday, in a match whose specific contours contained some eye-catching historical notes but were rarely compelling on their own merits, the World No. 1 finally reached the summit in Paris.
Djokovic defeated Andy Murray in four sets. He became part of the third straight French Open men’s final in which the loser of the first set not only won the match, but won the next three stanzas. Djokovic learned from the recent past, because he was the man who coughed up one-set leads in 2014 and 2015.
The progression of the match — Murray starting on fire, Djokovic rallying — might suggest that Djokovic surged ahead as the day went on. In terms of carrying the run of play, this is indisputably true, but in terms of the shift in power, it requires a little more unpacking.
In the second set of the 2015 loss to Wawrinka, Djokovic — perhaps burdened by nerves, perhaps struggling under a hot and baking Parisian sun which has often worn him down (see previous losses to Nadal in the heat) — lost energy. This drop in vigor enabled Wawrinka to step into the threshold and gain belief. The Swiss then soared in the third and fourth sets to register the striking upset which left Nole at the altar once again.
This time, the hinge-point second set was similarly decided by a drop in energy… but from Nole’s opponent, not the Serb himself.
The post-set lull is a trap door which ensnares even the best players (Roger Federer second-set walkabout, cough, cough). In championship matches, though, the best will either avoid it or overcome it. Murray, however — up one set to love after a tactically brilliant beginning to Sunday’s match — let the early part of the second set slide away from him in short order. It quickly became apparent, in the first stages of the second set, that even though Murray led on the scoreboard, it was up to the No. 2 seed to push through Djokovic and let the top seed know he’d be in for a fight.
Every reasonable inclination — early in that second set — placed the burden of proof on Murray to sustain a certain level of performance. The simple reality that the leading player shouldered such a weight in the second set, despite being a No. 2 seed making a third straight clay-court final plus a second straight major final, is not a commentary on Murray.
It’s a commentary on how great — how firmly formidable, how immovably imposing — Novak Djokovic has become.
This was not a match in which Djokovic had to push through Murray’s defenses. It could have been, but given the way the final three sets unfolded, that simply isn’t the case. As soon as Murray missed a sitter volley at 1-1, 30-40 in the third set, the flow of the match irrevocably spun away from the Scotsman’s grasp, never to return.
What was remarkable about a narrowly unremarkable match is that after a 2015 loss which forced him to push up the mountain, Djokovic played the final three sets of this final in a state of relatively easy control. He might have been stressed in the first set, and then again at the end after a 5-2 fourth-set lead very nearly became 5-5, but in between, he thumped Murray, winning 17 of 22 games.
Djokovic could have allowed this Sunday to be a chore, but all things considered, Nole made his crowning moment relatively uncomplicated. What’s therefore worth emphasizing is not that Murray had to push through him on Sunday (and failed), but that Djokovic pushed through Rafa and Roger years ago.
Before becoming the obstacle everyone else fights to topple in your given line of work, you have to overcome the obstacle.
Djokovic didn’t have one obstacle. He had two.
It’s not as though Djokovic is that much younger than (especially) Nadal or Federer, either. He’s only one year younger than Rafa, a contemporary in any real sense. If Djokovic was doing all this at an age five years younger than Nadal, we might view his feats differently. (This is something Federer and his fans will always be able to point to, but not in an unlimited way. I digress.)
That he’s very much a peer of Nadal — and had to play Federer several years ago, when the Swiss was not that removed from his prime period — magnifies Djokovic’s achievements to the fullest possible extent. The man who had only two major titles on his 24th birthday — with Fedal very much at the heart of the tennis universe, poised to dominate for many more years — now has 12 just after turning 29. That he shows no signs of stopping anytime soon — while Nadal and Federer deal with injuries and the realities of aging — is perhaps the greatest feat of all, the feat which will enable him to win 17 majors, maybe more.
Novak Djokovic is the obstacle Andy Murray and every other ATP player must push through in the present moment.
What’s amazing about this latest French Open final is not that Murray — despite a brilliant first set — had to continue to push through his opponent.
It’s that Djokovic pushed through the past — and Roger, and Rafa — to join his two fabled rivals as an owner of a career Grand Slam.
It’s that Djokovic has made himself untouchable enough that he’s actually exceeded Nadal and Federer with the freshly-achieved Novak Slam.
It’s that Djokovic, who labored for years under the standards set by a Spaniard and a Swiss, has now done something only Rod Laver had previously achieved in the Open Era (1969), and which no man has ever done (hold four major titles on three different surfaces).
Djokovic didn’t have the clear path — the barren field — Federer enjoyed in 2004, at the start of his ascendance. He didn’t have only one chief rival the way Sampras faced in the Agassi era. (There was no subsequent opponent of similar stature Sampras had to beat to win majors in his time — not normally.)
Sunday was not about subduing Andy Murray — Djokovic’s a better player, and will continue to remain that way.
Sunday was in many ways about forgetting the pain of the past — in 2015, and in all the years before 2011 when few of us expected Novak Djokovic to be this great…
… on the road to becoming even greater, now a part of men’s tennis at its greatest, most exalted height.
All that mountain climbing, all those alpine agonies, have given way to a view from the summit of tennis.
No wonder Novak Djokovic is smiling with such evident pleasure in that cover photo above.