Novak Djokovic began his day picturing how it would end, holding his children in his arms, raising another Grand Slam tournament trophy above his head and singing his national anthem as Serbian fans chanted and danced and celebrated his third French Open men’s singles title and much more.
On Sunday at Roland Garros, Djokovic defeated Casper Ruud, 7-6 (1), 6-3, 7-5, to capture a record 23rd Grand Slam singles title, continuing a stunning turnaround from a year and a half ago, when he was deported from Australia ahead of the first Grand Slam tournament of 2022, a dire harbinger of the year to come. After Ruud’s final forehand sailed off the court, Djokovic dropped his racket and collapsed onto his back on the red clay. It was easy to appreciate the drama.
“The toughest one for me to win,” Djokovic said of the French Open.
Moments later, after a congratulatory hug from Ruud, Djokovic knelt in prayer in the middle of the court, then headed for the stands to embrace his family and his coaches. When he came back onto the court moments later, he was wearing a jacket with “23” emblazoned under his right shoulder.
Djokovic, 36, has spent most of the last two decades chasing his rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, two other giants who have defined this era of modern tennis. That race has come to an end, at least for now.
“Those two guys, the past 15 years, were occupying my mind quite a lot,” Djokovic said as he sat next to the championship trophy.
Djokovic surpassed Federer last summer, just a few months before Federer’s retirement, winning his 21st Grand Slam title at Wimbledon’s Centre Court on the grass that Federer had ruled for so long. In January at the Australian Open, Djokovic won again. That 22nd title tied Nadal, the Spanish champion who missed this year’s French Open with an injury.
With a cast of stars on hand for the occasion, he made his history 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 Nadal bullwhipping his forehand stands just hundreds of yards away.
The retired N.F.L. quarterback Tom Brady sat next to Djokovic’s wife, Jelena. 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 Stan Smith and Yannick Noah, and many French actors, singers, businessmen and athletes were also among the spectators.
This was a momentous step in a journey filled with self-inflicted crises, epic battles with Nadal and Federer on the court, and early and midcareer fallow seasons, some because he was injured and some when he missed tournaments because he would not waiver from principles that kept him a staunch opponent of the Covid-19 vaccination. 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.
At the end of 2010, when Djokovic was 23 years old and five years past competing in his first major tournament, Federer had already won 16 Grand Slam titles to Djokovic’s one.
But in 2011, Djokovic began to storm the sport, winning the Australian and U.S. Opens and Wimbledon. He put together a 41-match winning streak and a 10-1 record against Federer and Nadal. Tennis has never been the same.
Maybe it was his new, gluten-free diet, or forsaking alcohol, or the time spent in a pressurized chamber. Maybe it was the stretching and calisthenics routine that turned Djokovic into a racket-wielding rubber band and has him “still moving like a cat,” as his coach, Goran Ivanisevic, said Sunday evening.
The boulder-sized chip on his shoulder, which Djokovic has said he has carried since growing up during the war in Serbia, hasn’t hurt either.
Ivanisevic, a Croat, has described a Balkan fighting spirit in Djokovic’s DNA that no one who has come from outside the region can match in the biggest matches.
Boris Becker, the retired German champion who coached him for three years, has said that Djokovic needed to stop punishing himself for an indiscretion that neither Djokovic nor Becker has ever talked about in detail. Once he did that, Becker said, 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. In case any Nadal or Federer fans want to fault him for being a mere compiler, Djokovic has a winning record against both of them.
Feeling worn out from his semifinal win over Carlos Alcaraz, Djokovic skipped practice on Saturday and searched for tranquillity on a walk in the woods. It was a good decision.
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 that concluded in Djokovic’s signature fashion. Across all these years and hundreds of Grand Slam matches, Djokovic has lost only five times after winning the first set.
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.”
Ivanisevic added to that assessment Sunday: “Then he digs your grave and you have a funeral and you’re dead. Bye-bye. Thank you for coming.”
That was about what Djokovic did to Ruud early on Sunday, on his way to history.
Ruud broke Djokovic’s serve to start the match and surged to an early lead as Djokovic played a shaky first few games, muffing overheads and pushing balls 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, running from corner to corner, forward and back, keeping the point alive long after it should have been over. It ended the way it often does — with an exhausted opponent struggling for oxygen and dumping a ball into the net.
“A bit devastating,” Ruud said.
In most tennis matches, when a set moves to a tiebreaker, the outcome comes down to a flip of a coin. That is not how it works with Djokovic.
Last week, he explained that when a tiebreaker begins, his mind moves to a state of hyper concentration to “stay in the present,” play each point on its merit and give nothing away.
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 mattered. When it was over, Djokovic had played 55 points in tiebreakers during this tournament and had yet to make an unforced error.
For an hour and 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, pushing the match past the three-hour mark. But after that first set, it was just a matter of time.
In the fog of all this winning, it can be difficult to remember Djokovic’s stretches of strife, even the more recent ones. There were those days when he was in custody in Australia last year as he awaited his deportation hearing. But there was also that ugly time in 2020, 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 the final of a French Open delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. Djokovic appeared headed for another walk in the wilderness.
Instead, he came within one match of achieving a Grand Slam, nearly winning all four Grand Slam tournaments in 2021, toppling Nadal at Roland Garros along the way.
He has won the first two Grand Slam events this year.
“The journey is still not over,” Djokovic said. “If I am winning Slams, why even think about ending the career?”
He may be alone with 23 Grand Slam titles, but in his eyes, there is more history to play for.