Novak Djokovic Is Making His Own History Now

Novak Djokovic has reached thirty-four Grand Slam finals. No one in the men’s game has reached more. He’s beaten Roger Federer four times (out of five) in Grand Slam finals. He’s beaten Rafael Nadal four times (out of nine) in Grand Slam finals. On Sunday, in Paris’s Stade Roland Garros, at age thirty-six—an age at which the great French Open champion Bjorn Borg had already been retired for ten years—Djokovic unsurprisingly beat Norway’s Casper Ruud, twelve years his junior, 7–6 (1), 6–3, 7–5. It was Djokovic’s twenty-third singles title in a Grand Slam tournament. No one in the men’s game has won more.

One angle from which to see Djokovic’s remarkable achievement is to view it from September 9, 2007, courtside at Arthur Ashe Stadium, Flushing, New York, where I watched Roger Federer defeat a twenty-year-old Djokovic, in Djokovic’s first Grand Slam final. It was Federer’s fourth straight U.S. Open title, and his twelfth Grand Slam, just two shy of the record then held by Pete Sampras. Djokovic played well that afternoon, just not on the big points. Each of the first two sets went to a tiebreak, and Djokovic never pushed Federer in either of them. He lost in straight sets. He had game, but not under pressure.

It took a while, but Djokovic solved that problem. He taught himself to tunnel in, to visualize, to use his breath to relax, to focus. For years now, he has been the best big-point player in tennis—especially in Grand Slam tournaments, especially in compressed, designed-for-tension tiebreaks. Entering the final on Sunday, he had played five tiebreaks in the previous two weeks in Paris and won all of them. That streak continued, spectacularly, at the end of Sunday’s gruelling first set. Ruud, playing aggressively—muscling his inside-out forehand, his best shot, deep and heavy—had held his own against Djokovic. They exchanged breaks of service, which brought them, eventually, to 6–6, and the tiebreak. You could sense what was coming if you looked closely: as Djokovic awaited Ruud’s serve, to start the tiebreak, his gaze hardened, and his first steps as the point unfolded were quicker than before, his swings freer. He amazed: a forehand winner on the stretch; a drop-shot-and-volley combination for another winner; a slice-serve ace. Ruud managed one point. Djokovic sealed it, soon enough, with an inside-out forehand winner. In the course of fifty-five tiebreak points during the tournament, Djokovic did not make a single unforced error. On this afternoon, he would not be pressured again.

He had been tested, for a time, two days earlier, in his semifinal match, by Carlos Alcaraz, the twenty-year-old Spanish wonder who entered the French Open ranked No. 1 in the world. It was the match that tennis had been waiting for: titleholders of each of the three previous majors, head to head; a potential changing of the guard, generationally. Djokovic played confident, clean tennis to take the first set. In the second, Alcaraz did Alcaraz—flamboyant, imaginative, joyous—to even things up, and unsettle his opponent. But, early in the third set, Alcaraz’s body betrayed him: his arm cramped, then his legs. He could barely walk, as the scoreline of Djokovic’s victory would show: 6–3, 5–7, 6–1, 6–1. The cramping, Alcaraz said afterward, was “a combination of a lot of things.” Mostly it had to do with Djokovic. Alcaraz had beaten him in Madrid, in 2022, but that was a best-of-three match, not a Grand Slam match—and not a Grand Slam match being billed as one for the ages. “The main thing,” Alcaraz said, “it was the tension.”

Djokovic, too, had problems with his body when he was in his early twenties. At the 2010 Australian Open, in the fourth set of a quarterfinal match against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga—whom he’d defeated in the final in Melbourne two years before, to capture his first major title—he grabbed at his stomach, called for a trainer, and lost, meekly, soon after. It had to do with a lot of things; one of the causes, Djokovic became convinced, was gluten, which he then eliminated from his diet. A year later, in Australia, he began one of the most remarkable seasons in memory, winning his first forty-one matches, going a combined 10–1 against Federer and Nadal, triumphing at three majors, and reaching No. 1 for the first time. He has since become an exponent of wellness, including practices that place him near the Gwyneth Paltrow edge of the health-and-well-being spectrum. It is unclear whether his march to this year’s French title was aided by the Taopatch he affixed to his chest. (A Taopatch utilizes nanocrystals that are activated by light and body heat—I think.) It is quite clear that Djokovic’s theories about what is best for his body led to his refusal to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and this caused him to miss both the Australian Open and the U.S. Open last year. But Djokovic’s care for his body has otherwise paid off. His serve and forehand, which carried him through the last two sets against Ruud, are stronger than ever. And his limberness and lateral speed remain assets. It was Ruud, not Djokovic, who looked weary during the last forty minutes or so of the final, as those in the crowd on Court Philippe-Chatrier, certain of the match’s outcome, worked up a wave or two and prepared their cell phones to capture championship point (a listless Ruud forehand that sailed wide, as it turned out).

Nadal, who’s a year older than Djokovic and his greatest rival, has not fared as well physically: this year, he was not in Paris but back in Spain, recovering from arthroscopic surgery on his left psoas tendon and his left hip. He has won the French Open fourteen times, an accomplishment as astonishing as anything in sports, but it is an open question whether he can regain the form to win another—or any major, or any, tournament. He is unlikely to rejoin the tour this year, and has said that next year will be his last.

Meanwhile, Djokovic is, for the first time, alone atop the list of men’s all-time Grand Slam tournament winners, one ahead of Nadal. He has won each Grand Slam event at least three times, something that no one else in the men’s game has done. He heads now to Wimbledon, where he has won the past four championships, and reclaims the No. 1 rank in the world, where he has been perched, over the years, for a record three hundred and eighty-eight weeks. Can he win every major this year—a calendar Grand Slam—a feat that he fell just short of achieving in 2021, when he lost the U.S. Open final to Daniil Medvedev? Since the Open era began, the only singles player to accomplish that tour de force on the men’s side is Rod Laver, who did so in 1969. Djokovic’s tennis is geared to compete with history and rewrite the record books. It is difficult to imagine that coming to an end soon—though, at this point, the records and the history are increasingly those of his own making. ♦

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