PARIS (AP) — Novak Djokovic made clear for years that this was his goal. What drove him. What inspired him. The biggest titles from his sport’s biggest stages were Djokovic’s main aim and now he finally stands alone — ahead of Rafael Nadal, ahead of Roger Federer, ahead of every man who ever has swung a racket.
If Djokovic could wait this long to hold this record, he certainly could wait for the half-hour or so it took to straighten out his strokes in the French Open final. And so, after a bit of a shaky start in thick, humid air and under foreboding charcoal clouds Sunday, he imposed himself. The opponent at Court Philippe Chatrier, Casper Ruud, never really stood a serious chance after that.
Djokovic earned his men’s-record 23rd Grand Slam singles championship, breaking a tie with Nadal and moving three in front of the retired Federer, with a 7-6 (1), 6-3, 7-5 victory over Ruud that really was not in doubt for most of its 3 hours, 13 minutes.
Djokovic, a 36-year-old from Serbia, puts this one alongside the French Open titles he earned in 2016 and 2021, making him the only man with at least three from each major event. He has won 10 trophies at the Australian Open, seven at Wimbledon and three at the U.S. Open.
Also worth noting: Djokovic is again halfway to a calendar-year Grand Slam — winning all four majors in one season — something no man has achieved since Rod Laver in 1969. Djokovic came close to pulling off that feat in 2021, when he won the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon and made it all the way to the title match at the U.S. Open before losing to Daniil Medvedev.
Djokovic will resume that pursuit at Wimbledon, which begins on the grass of the All England Club on July 3.
He has now clutched the trophy at 11 of the last 20 Slams, a remarkable run made even more so when considering that he did not participate in two majors during that span because he did not get vaccinated against COVID-19. Djokovic was deported from Australia in January 2021 before the Australian Open, and he was not allowed to fly to the United States ahead of last year’s U.S. Open under a rule that since has been lifted.
Getting to 23 not only sets the mark for men, but it also lets Djokovic equal Serena Williams, who wrapped up her career last year, for the most by anyone in the Open era, which began in 1968. Margaret Court won some of her all-time record of 24 Slam trophies in the amateur era.
At 20 days past his 36th birthday, Djokovic is the oldest singles champion at Roland Garros, considered the most grueling of the majors because of the lengthy, grinding points required by the red clay, which is slower than the grass or hard courts underfoot elsewhere.
Nadal’s 22nd major arrived in Paris a year ago, two days after he turned 36. He has been sidelined since January by a hip injury and had arthroscopic surgery on June 2.
As if all of that weren’t enough, Djokovic’s triumph on Sunday also means he will return to No. 1 in the ATP rankings on Monday, replacing Carlos Alcaraz. Djokovic already has spent more weeks at the top spot than any player — man or woman — since the inception of computerized tennis rankings a half-century ago.
It was Djokovic who eliminated Alcaraz in the semifinals on Thursday, wearing him down over two thrilling sets until the 20-year-old Spaniard’s body cramped up badly. Alcaraz continued to play, but the scores of the last two sets of the four-set match told the story: 6-1, 6-1.
This was the third Slam final in the past five events for Ruud, a 24-year-old from Norway, but he is now 0-3. He lost to Nadal at the French Open a year ago and to Alcaraz at the U.S. Open last September.
Perhaps due to an awareness of all that was at stake, Djokovic, in his 34th major final, was the one who got off to a shaky start.
Ruud emerged to a partial ovation and polite applause. More folks rose to their feet as a roar met Djokovic’s entrance, followed by thunderous chants of his two-syllable nickname, “No-le! No-le! No-le!” That chorus resumed right before play began — and repeatedly over the course of the afternoon, sometimes to celebrate his best moments, sometimes to encourage him.
As Djokovic reeled off 12 of the last 13 points to end things, dropping onto his back with limbs spread wide at the finish, the shouts of his name were thunderous.
The preferred method of saluting Ruud? Drawn-out, monotone pronouuncements of his last name — “Ruuuuuuuuuud” — that sounded as if it were booing, which, of course, it was not.
At first, Ruud seemed to do whatever he could to test Djokovic’s forehand, the weaker side. It paid off early, when Djokovic kept missing that stroke — into the net, wide, long — then made a different sort of mistake, shanking an overhead from near the net way beyond the opposite baseline to get broken and trail 2-0.
For whatever reason, that shot always has been Djokovic’s “bête noire,” and he missed another overhead later in the set.
Soon, Ruud led 4-1, thanks in part to Djokovic’s troubles. By then, Djokovic accumulated 13 unforced errors, while Ruud made just four.
And then everything changed.
After finishing the first set with 18 unforced errors, Djokovic recalibrated himself, with merely 14 over the last two sets combined.
Then it was Ruud’s turn to flub an overhead, rocking back and depositing his into the net to end a 29-stroke point. Djokovic’s first service break made it 4-3, and he shook his right fist.
They went to a tiebreaker, truly Djokovic’s dominion. When the import rises, along with the tension, he simply excels. Has forever, it seems.
During the first-to-7 segment, Djokovic contributed four winners and zero unforced errors.
That made his career mark in tiebreakers 308-162, a winning percentage of .655. In 2023, he’s 15-4, including 6-0 in Paris — there were 55 points played across that half-dozen, and Djokovic’s sum total of unforced errors was zero.
Read that again: zero.
That set alone lasted 1 hour, 21 minutes, chock full of extended exchanges, the sort of points about which entire stories could be written. There were those that lasted 20, 25, 29 strokes. One was won by Ruud with the help of a back-to-the-net, between-the-legs shot. On another, Djokovic tumbled behind the baseline, smudging his red shirt, blue shorts and skin with the rust-colored clay.
Djokovic’s scrambling and stretching and bending and twisting on defense shows up on the scoreboard, for sure. But all of the long points also sap a foe’s energy and will.
Helps as well, maybe, that Djokovic knows all the little ins and outs. He complained to chair umpire Damien Dumusois about how much time was being allotted for changeovers — a little extra rest never hurt anyone, right? Djokovic took the 25-second serve clock down until it expired and occasionally beyond that, so much so that one voice from the seats exclaimed, “Serve it!” And Dumusois warned him for the time-taking in the third set.
When he broke Ruud to lead 3-0 in the second set, his powers now on full display, Djokovic jabbed his right index finger against his temple over and over and over. He wheeled to face his nearby box in the stands, where the guests included his coach, Goran Ivanisevic; his wife and two children; his agent; and even seven-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady.
The recently retired Brady is widely viewed as the NFL’s “Greatest of All-Time” — or “GOAT,” for short — and there has been a debate in the tennis world for quite some time over which among Djokovic, Nadal or Federer deserves that sobriquet.
If the barometer is Grand Slam championships, no one can argue against Djokovic’s status at the moment.