Novak Djokovic Captures the French Open and a 23rd Grand Slam Title

Novak Djokovic reached the top of the tennis mountain on Sunday, dominating Casper Ruud in straight sets to win the French Open men’s singles title for a third time and so much more.

With the most momentous championship of his remarkable career so far, Djokovic has staked his claim to being the greatest male tennis player in history, with a record 23 Grand Slam tournament singles titles.

Djokovic defeated Ruud, 7-6 (1), 6-3, 7-5. On his second match point, Djokovic induced Ruud into a final forehand off the court and collapsed on his back. He then knelt in prayer in the middle of the court and headed for the stands to embrace his family and his coaches.

“I feel I have the power to create my own destiny,” Djokovic said from the podium during the trophy celebration. “If you want the better future you can create it.”

Tournament after tournament, Djokovic has spent most of the last two decades chasing his rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the two other giants who have defined this era of modern tennis. That race has come to an end, at least for now.

Djokovic, 36, surpassed the retired Federer last summer, at Wimbledon’s Centre Court on the grass that Federer had ruled for so long, when he won his 21st Grand Slam title. In January at the Australian Open, Djokovic won again. That 22nd title tied Nadal, who missed this year’s French Open with an injury.

On Sunday, with a horde of fans waving Serbian flags and chanting his name and a cast of stars on hand for the occasion, he won again, this time for the record books.

The retired N.F.L. quarterback Tom Brady sat next to Jelena, Djokovic’s wife. The French soccer star Kylian Mbappé and the Swedish soccer star Zlatan Ibrahimovic sat a few rows above the court. The American actor Jake Gyllenhaal, the tennis icons Yannick Noah and Stan Smith and many French actors, singers, businessmen and athletes were also in the stands.

Djokovic did it on the red clay of the Philippe Chatrier court at the French Open, which Nadal has won an astonishing 14 times. A silver statue of the Spanish champion bullwhipping his forehand stands just hundreds of yards away.

Djokovic’s journey has been anything but smooth. It has been filled with one self-inflicted crisis after another, epic battles with Nadal and Federer on the court, early and midcareer fallow seasons, some because he was injured, and some when he was forced to miss tournaments because he would not waiver from his principles. His most seemingly impossible task has been winning the hearts of tennis fans who long ago pledged them to the first two members of the so-called Big Three.

Beyond that, there was the simple matter of math. At the end of 2010, when Djokovic was 23 and five years past competing in his first major tournament, Federer had already won 16 Grand Slam titles to Djokovic’s one. Any suggestion that Djokovic might one day catch Federer, or even Nadal, who had nine, would have been absurd.

But then 2011 dawned, Djokovic stormed the sport, winning the Australian and U.S. Opens and Wimbledon that year. He put together a 41-match winning streak and a 10-1 record against Federer and Nadal. Tennis has never been the same.

There is no one explanation for what has transpired since. A new, strictly gluten-free diet, giving up alcohol and experimentation with spending time in a pressurized, egg-shaped chamber have all gotten their share of credit along the way. So has a stretching and calisthenics routine that has turned Djokovic into a racket-wielding rubber band, likely helping to limit his injuries.

The boulder-sized chip on his shoulder that Djokovic has said he has carried since his childhood growing up during the war in Serbia hasn’t hurt either.

Goran Ivanisevic, Djokovic’s current coach, who is a Croat, has described a Balkan fighting spirit in Djokovic’s DNA that no one who has come from outside the region can match.

Boris Becker, the retired German champion who coached him for three years, said that during one period when Djokovic lost a series of Grand Slam finals, he was punishing himself for an indiscretion that neither Djokovic not Becker has ever talked about in detail. Becker said Djokovic learned to forgive himself, and once he did that he became liberated, and began winning with abandon.

The numbers since then defy simple explanation. With his win Sunday, Djokovic regained the world’s top ranking for a record 388th week. In addition to the record for Grand Slam tournament titles, he also holds the record for Masters 1000 titles, and just in case any Nadal or Federer fans wanted to fault him for being a mere compiler, Djokovic has a winning record against both Nadal and Federer.

Any hope that Ruud, 24, a steady and determined Norwegian playing in his third Grand Slam final in 13 months, had of turning Sunday into something other than a coronation dissipated at the end of a grinding first-set battle that concluded in Djokovic’s signature fashion.

“It’s tough to explain how good you are,” Ruud said to his competitor after the match.

Andy Roddick, a former world No. 1, famously said of Djokovic that “first he comes for your legs, and then he comes for your soul.”

That was about what Djokovic did to Ruud early on Sunday, on his way to history.

History said if Ruud had any chance of prevailing he would have to win the first set. Across all these years and hundreds of Grand Slam matches, Djokovic has lost only five times after winning the first set.

Ruud broke Djokovic’s serve to start the match and surged to an early lead as Djokovic played a shaky first game, muffing overheads and pushing forehands and backhands off the court as Ruud played the mostly error-free and deceptively dangerous tennis that has characterized the best moments of his career.

But then the Djokovic that the tennis world has come to know and fear the past dozen years emerged. With Ruud serving at 4-2, close enough to sniff the first-set finish line, Djokovic indulged in one of those classic grinding rallies, where he runs from corner to corner, forward and back, keeping the point alive long after it should be over. It ended the way it so often does — with an exhausted opponent struggling for oxygen and dumping a ball into the net.

Ruud would come close one more time, coming within two points of taking that set on the strength of a backward-running, between-the-legs lob. But Djokovic erased that threat with about a dozen shots over the next four points.

In most tennis matches, when a set moves to a tiebreaker the outcome is akin to the flip of a coin. That is not how it works with Djokovic, not Sunday, not this whole tournament, and rarely on the biggest stages during this most recent run of mid-30s dominance.

It’s not an accident. Last week, he explained that when a tiebreaker begins, his mind moves to state of hyper-concentration as he uses everything at his disposal to “stay in the present,” as he describes it, and play each point on its merit.

He started this one with a lunging forehand winner down the line, and finished it seven points later with another blasted forehand that Ruud didn’t even bother making a run at, not that it would have made a difference. When it was over, Djokovic had played 55 points in tiebreakers during this tournament and had yet to make an unforced error.

For 1 hour 22 minutes, Ruud had gone toe to toe with Djokovic, matching him sprint for sprint and shot for shot for long stretches, and he had nothing but a rubbery set of legs and a damaged psyche to show for it. Ruud stuck around for the scrap, something he has not always done, pushing the match past the three-hour mark, rousing the crowd into a spirited third-set wave and dueling chants of “NOVAK, NOVAK,” and “RUUUUUUUUD.” But after that first set it was just a matter of time.

Ruud has now played 11 sets against Djokovic in five matches and lost every one.

In the fog of all this winning, it can be difficult to remember the stretches of strife, even the more recent ones. There were those days in custody in Australia last year as he awaited his deportation hearing. But there was also that ugly time in 2021, when he accidentally swatted a ball into the throat of a line judge and was tossed out of the U.S. Open. The next month, Nadal destroyed him in straight sets in a delayed French Open final. Djokovic appeared headed for another walk in the wilderness.

Instead, he came within one match of winning all four Grand Slam tournaments in 2021, toppling Nadal at Roland Garros along the way.

He has won the first two already this year. Even after 23 Grand Slam titles, there is more history to be made.

Matthew Futterman is a veteran sports journalist and the author of two books, “Running to the Edge: A Band of Misfits and the Guru Who Unlocked the Secrets of Speed” and “Players: How Sports Became a Business.” @mattfutterman

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