As Novak Djokovic started his day, he imagined himself celebrating his third French Open men’s singles triumph with his family and singing his country’s song while hoisting another Grand Slam event trophy over his head.
A year and a half ago, Djokovic was deported from Australia before the first Grand Slam tournament of 2022, a dire omen for the year to come. On Sunday at Roland Garros, he defeated Casper Ruud, 7-6 (1), 6-3, 7-5, to capture a record 23rd Grand Slam singles title. Djokovic threw down his racket and flopped into the red clay as Ruud’s final forehand shot went out of bounds. The dramatic value was obvious.
Following a congratulatory embrace with Ruud, Djokovic knelt in the centre of the court and prayed before heading to the bleachers to celebrate with his loved ones and mentors. A little time later, he returned to the floor while sporting a jacket with the number “23” on the right shoulder.
For the better part of the previous two decades, Djokovic, now 36, has been in hot pursuit of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, two other tennis superstars who have helped define the contemporary age. That competition is over for the time being.
Last summer, Djokovic won his 21st Grand Slam championship on the grass that Federer had dominated for so long at Wimbledon’s Centre Court, passing Federer in the process. Djokovic won the Australian Open in January for his third Grand Slam title. Nadal, the Spanish champion who was injured and had to skip this year’s French Open, is now tied with him at 22 titles.
On the red clay of the Philippe Chatrier court at the French Open, which Nadal has won an unbelievable 14 times, he created history with a cast of luminaries in attendance. Just a few hundred yards away is a silver statue of Nadal with his forehand bullwhip.
This marked a turning point in a career marked by self-inflicted crises, epic on-court battles with Nadal and Federer, and early and midcareer dry spells, some due to injury and others when he missed tournaments rather than compromise his principles as a staunch opponent of the Covid-19 vaccination. The hardest thing he’s had to do is win over tennis fans who have been loyal to the other two members of the so-called Big Three for a long time.