This article first appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Long Island Tennis Magazine. Click Here to read the full digital edition
In 1980, when the United States Olympic hockey team did the impossible and knocked off the previously infallible Soviet Union in what is regarded as the greatest upset in sports history, their job was not complete.
The Americans had to come back and defeat Finland to win the Olympic Gold Medal. And while not completely analogous, with Novak Djokovic a little more of an established success compared to that young American hockey team, the Serb faced a similar scenario at this year’s French Open. Meeting up with 13-time champion Rafael Nadal in the semifinals, the two players battled through four- plus hours in a match that had the quality worthy of a championship.
“Definitely the best match that I was ever part of at Roland Garros for me, and [one of the] top three matches that I have ever played in my entire career,” Djokovic said. “Considering the quality of tennis, playing my biggest rival on the court where he has had so much success and has been the dominant force in the last 15-plus years. The atmosphere was completely electric. For both players, a lot of support. Just amazing.”
After falling behind 0-5 to start the match and losing the opening set, Djokovic rebounded in the second, and then the two greats played one of the most competitive sets of tennis ever in the third. Djokovic would take it in a tiebreaker, and then eventually pull away in the fourth set to win the match and advance to the finals.
“It’s just one of these matches that I really will remember for a very long time,” Djokovic added. “Not just because I won the match, but [also] because of the atmosphere and the occasion. It was very special.”
But much like the American hockey team more than forty years ago, Djokovic had to quickly come down from the high of that semifinal victory and prepare for the championship match, where he was playing an in-form Stefanos Tsitsipas.
The 22-year-old from Greece was competing in his first major final and came to play. After an hour-long opening set, Tsitsipas won it in a tiebreaker, and then played a dominant second set to take the commanding two-sets-to-love advantage.
Photo courtesy of USTA/Darren Carroll
It was then time for Djokovic to channel the fight that has made him so great over the years.
“There’s always two voices inside: there is one telling you that you can’t do it, that it’s done, it’s finished,” he said. “That voice was pretty strong in the second set. So I felt that it was time for me to actually vocalize the other voice and try to suppress the first one that was saying I can’t make it. I told myself I can do it, encouraged myself. I strongly started to repeat that inside of my mind, tried to live with it with my entire being. Once I started playing in that third set, especially in the first few games, I saw where my game was at, it kind of supported that second voice that was more positive, more encouraging. After that, there was not much doubt for me.”
And from that point on, Tsitsipas was in trouble. Djokovic completed the epic comeback, and became the first player ever to come back from two-sets-to-love down twice en route to a major title, after he also came back against young Italian Lorenzo Musetti earlier in the tournament.
His victory was the latest exhibit entered into evidence in his case to be considered as the greatest player of all-time. It was his 19th major overall, and his second French Open title, making him the first male player to ever win each of the four Grand Slams multiple times. The other two players in contention for the title of the greatest male player of all-time are Roger Federer and the aforementioned Nadal; and Djokovic holds a winning record over both of them.
Just one major title behind Federer and Nadal’s record of 20, Djokovic has closed that gap in a fury. The Serb didn’t win his first major title until the 2008 Australian Open, and by that time Nadal had three majors to his name, and Federer had 12. With the way Djokovic is currently playing, it’s only a matter of when, and not if, that he will surpass their mark.
“I never thought it was a mission impossible to reach the [amount of] Grand Slams as these guys,” said Djokovic. “I mean, I’m not there, it’s one less. But they are still playing. We still have opportunities at Wimbledon and all the other Slams. You have four Slams a year, so we’re all competing for this amazing achievement and amazing trophies. I’ll keep on going. I’ll keep on chasing. At the same time, I’ll keep paving my own path, which is my own authentic path. All three of us have our own journeys, and that’s it.”
While Djokovic, as you’d expect, won’t discuss where he sits on any all-time list, it is clear that you can’t have any discussion about the history of tennis without him being a focal point of the conversation. The Serb has now set his sights on #20, and is the favorite at the Wimbledon Championships. He will also most likely be the favorite at the U.S. Open later this summer, and the Serb has a legitimate chance to achieve the Calendar Slam. With it being an Olympic year, the Golden Slam is a possibility as well.
“Everything is possible, and I did put myself in a good position to go for the Golden Slam,” he said. “But, you know, I was in this position in 2016 as well. It ended up in a third- round loss in Wimbledon...So, obviously I will enjoy this win and then think about Wimbledon in a few days’ time. I don’t have an issue with saying that I’m going for the title there.”
It is precisely that mentality that is at the core of Djokovic’s greatness. He is confident, but never looks too far ahead, and always remains in the moment. That sort of perspective is part of why he can come back from two sets down to win a major final, and why there still remains a gap between himself and the Next Gen of players on the ATP Tour. Federer fans will have their say, as will Nadal fans, when it comes to who the greatest male tennis player of all-time is.
But when it is all said and done, Novak Djokovic seems like he will surpass both players, if he has not already, and stand alone at the top of the history of men’s tennis.
Photo courtesy of USTA/Simon Bruty
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for Long Island Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at email@example.com.