Djokovic, 36, began nervously, trailing 3-0 and 4-2 in the first set, with the weight of the occasion seemingly heavy on his shoulders, his feet unusually off balance. But as so often in his career, Djokovic dug himself out of trouble and then pulled away in familiar style to win 7-6 (1), 6-3, 7-5.
As Ruud’s final forehand landed wide, Djokovic fell to the clay and lay flat on his back, soaking in the applause of the crowd. After taking the congratulations from Ruud he sat for several seconds, before going into the crowd to celebrate with his family and support team, emerging with a jacket with “23” emblazoned on it.
“It’s no coincidence that I should win my 23rd Grand Slam title here. This has been the hardest tournament for me to win throughout my career,” Djokovic said after. “I am beyond fortunate in my life to win 23 Grand Slams. It’s an incredible feeling.”
Djokovic is the oldest man to win the French Open, and his third Roland Garros crown moves him ahead of Rafael Nadal to 23 Grand Slams, level with Serena Williams and one behind all-time leader Margaret Court, whose career spanned the amateur and professional eras. He is now halfway to the coveted calendar-year Grand Slam. Oh, and Monday, he will return to the No 1 ranking on the ATP Tour.
In 2009, when Roger Federer overtook Pete Sampras’ then-record of 14 Grand Slams, it seemed like the chance of anyone else getting close was slim. What Djokovic has done in reaching 23 and counting is unparalleled in the men’s game. Providing he stays fit and motivated, he has every chance of setting a record that will never be broken.
The 36-year-old won his first Grand Slam title in 2008 when Federer had already claimed 13 of his 20 crowns and Nadal’s era of unprecedented dominance was underway on the Parisian clay with the Spaniard primed to make inroads on the other surfaces.
“I’ve always compared myself to these guys, the two greatest rivals in my career,” Djokovic said.
“I’ve said before they have defined me as a player. All the success I have, they contributed to it in a way the countless hours of thinking what it takes to beat them.
“It’s amazing to know I’m one ahead of Rafa but at the same time everyone writes their own history. I think everyone has a unique journey they should embrace and stick to but of course the three of us and Andy (Murray), we reached the golden era.”
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.
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.
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.
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