Novak Djokovic is unquestionably one of the greatest players of all time. The Serbian’s numbers speak to that. A twelve-time Grand Slam champion, he has also won 30 Masters tournaments, second only to Nadal, and is a five-time winner at the ATP Finals, including four in a row between 2012 and 2015. He has also reigned at the top of the rankings for 223 weeks, putting him fifth on the all-time list, behind only Federer amongst active players.
The last two years have not been easy for him. He has struggled with injuries, particularly a serious problem with his right elbow that required changes to his game and surgery. That coincided with off-the-court issues. A racquet change, which as Federer can attest to is never smooth sailing, has also doubtless not helped. But Djokovic seemed to have rediscovered some of his old form in Rome and may be a danger going into Roland Garros. And in honour of his 31st birthday, RealSport are looking back at his three greatest Roland Garros moments.
3 The best semifinal of all?
Going into Roland Garros in 2013 Djokovic and Nadal were unquestionably the two best players on clay, arguably the two best in the world. Djokovic had scored a memorable victory over the Spaniard in Monte Carlo, but it was Nadal who had reigned supreme in Madrid and Rome. But Nadal’s injury troubles in 2012 had seen him fall outside of the top two, and there became every chance that the two would be drawn to meet in the semifinals not the final.
So it proved. But the two men put on such a memorable show, one well worthy of deciding the winner of a Major, that the actual final has been somewhat forgotten. Nadal made the better start, breaking Djokovic midway through the opener to take the lead. But Djokovic returned the favour in the second to level the match. Nadal, then, raised his level to that magical point only he can reach, to reclaim the lead in the match, winning the third 6-1.
In the fourth, when he broke again, Djokovic looked to be down amongst the dead men. But the Serbian roared back into the contest, breaking back and winning the set in a tiebreak. He broke again early in the decider, and that victory over Nadal that had so long eluded him seemed within his reach at long last. It wasn’t to be. He slipped, both literally and metaphorically, and that was all Nadal needed to get back into the contest and eventually prevail nine games to seven in the decider.
But whilst Djokovic was denied, the match was of such rich quality that it must rank amongst the best of his career. More importantly though, who else could have pushed Nadal so hard and for so long on his beloved Philippe Chatrier. In defeat Djokovic may have remained in Nadal’s shadow, but he stepped out of everyone else’s. It was clearly a bruising loss, and it would be over a year before Djokovic again reigned as a Major champion. But it was also in many ways the making of the man.
2 Nadal finally conquered
Nadal had beaten Djokovic again in Paris in 2014, to add to the defeat in the final he had inflicted in 2012. But when they met again in 2015, the balance of power in the tennis world had shifted. Nadal seemed a spent force, with injuries forcing him to miss the US hard court swing and then appendicitis bringing his season to an early close after Basel. 2015 had started little better, with Nadal winning just one tournament, in Buenos Aires, ahead of the French Open.
Djokovic, in contrast, was utterly dominant. In 2014, the Serbian had returned to the summit of the rankings and won a first Slam since the 2013 Australian Open at Wimbledon, defeating Federer in a memorable five-set final. He had been stunned by Nishikori in the US Open semifinals, but had triumphed in Melbourne, Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo and Madrid. In fact, he had won five of the seven tournaments he had entered coming into Roland Garros. His stock had never been higher.
As a result, few gave Nadal much chance coming into their quarterfinal clash, the earliest they had met in Paris since 2006. When Djokovic raced to a 4-0 lead, the predictions of a whitewash looked to be coming true. But Nadal was not going to so lightly surrender his crown, and he battled back to 4-4. But Djokovic was in irresistible form. He broke again later in the decider to win it, and thereafter Nadal was not able to lay a glove on his opponent.
Djokovic wrapped up the second set 6-3 and completed the win by dismissing Nadal 6-1 in the third set. It was the victory that Djokovic had so long searched for, and one that he arguably deserved at that point in his career. For Nadal it was clearly a bitter moment, and it was impossible not to feel a great sense of sympathy for the beaten champion. Fortunately he was to rise again. As for Djokovic, ultimate glory eluded him once more as Wawrinka delivered the performance of a lifetime to deny Djokovic in the final.
1 At last triumphant
If the defeat in the final to Wawrinka in 2015 stayed with Djokovic he did not show it. He had seemed to have a moment of catharsis as the crowd rose to applaud his efforts to claim the Coupe de Mousquetaires after that defeat to Wawrinka, which moved him to tears. It also seemed to drive him to greater efforts in his search for perfection. At Wimbledon, barely a month later, Djokovic brushed aside Federer in the final, who had come so close to stopping him the year before.
Federer was again his victim in New York where Djokovic claimed his tenth Slam. Neither Murray or Federer could stop him in 2016 in Melbourne, where the Serb was at his dominant best in winning a sixth Australian Open title. He again completed the Sunshine Double in Indian Wells and Miami, before winning a first Madrid Open since 2016 by defeating Murray in the final. None had been able to stand before what looked an unstoppable tide of success for Djokovic.
But whilst he was being acclaimed the champion in Paris before he had even arrived, it did not prove to be all smooth-sailing for the then-world #1. The Parisian weather certainly did not oblige, washing out several days across the tournament and the conditions were as heavy as they had ever been across the two weeks. But Djokovic managed to battle his way through, and though the pressure looked to be getting to him at times, he persevered.
When he finally conquered Murray in the final, and in doing so at last conquered the French Open, the Serbian described it as an out of body experience. But it was also one of the greatest achievements of his, and any other, career. Not only did Djokovic complete the Career Grand Slam, he also became the first man to hold all four Slams simultaneously since Rod Laver in 1969, and the first ever to do it on three different surfaces. The Serb has not won a Slam since. He may never do so again. But that day in Paris assured him of his place in the pantheon of greats regardless.
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