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“Proud, fulfilled”: Djokovic manages pressure, emotions to create history

  • Matt Trollope

It is extraordinarily rare for a player to get multiple shots at achieving greatness, cementing an historical legacy and attaining tennis immortality.

But Novak Djokovic is one of them, and that’s exactly what he did on Sunday at Roland Garros.

His 7-6(1) 6-3 7-5 triumph over Casper Ruud gave him a 23rd Grand Slam singles title, the most of any man in the history of the sport. He will return to world No.1 as a result.

He is also the first man to win all four majors at least three times each. Plus, with the Australian and French titles secured in 2023, he is, again, halfway to a calendar Grand Slam.

These are milestones which arguably confirm Djokovic as the greatest male player of all time, although the sporting Serb said such a description was “disrespectful” to other great champions who have uniquely impacted the sport.

However, there can be no argument that they confirm his greatness.

His monstrous performance on Court Philippe Chatrier against Ruud was undoubtedly informed by the position in which he found himself two years ago.

In 2021, Djokovic was again chasing the calendar Grand Slam, and was one match away from completing the historic feat when he entered the US Open final. Also on the line was a 21st major singles title, which would have elevated him above arch rivals Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

With so much on the line, Djokovic was understandably inhibited, losing in straight sets to the impressive Daniil Medvedev. 

Learning from experience

While many saw this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity missed, and despite Nadal skipping clear in the Grand Slam 'race' with his stellar start to 2022, Djokovic has – astonishingly, at age 36 – created another opportunity for himself.

Now the reigning Wimbledon, Australian and French champion, Djokovic has reeled Nadal in and surpassed his tally of 22 major singles titles, in the process becoming the oldest man to ever win Roland Garros.

Djokovic has been candid about chasing and creating history, and was keenly aware of what he was playing for.

Again, he seemed inhibited, falling behind 1-4 in the opening set against Ruud and looking physically drained, and struggled with racquet acceleration, particularly on overheads when Ruud lofted the ball high.

However, unlike in New York, he was able to play through it.

NOVAK DJOKOVIC: "I want to be the best"

“Of course if I say that I didn't think about the finish line that is right there and that one more match is needed to win a trophy, historic one, of course, but my team has created a good bubble around me,” Djokovic said.

“We did, I think, a great job (of) just staying into the present moment and performing as good as we wanted to.

“And of course when I saw his forehand going wide, I felt a huge relief, and I was overwhelmed with wonderful emotions.

Novak Djokovic secures match point in the 2023 Roland Garros final, a triumph earning him a men's record 23rd Grand Slam singles title. (Getty Images)

“But it's just so much pressure and emotions and expectations from my side personally and from anyone else that once it's finished, once everything is done and dusted, it's just incredibly satisfying, of course, if you finish with the trophy, another Grand Slam trophy.

“At same time it's huge relief, because I'm just glad it's over, because you have to deal with kind of those pressures and expectations on a daily basis and kind of live with yourself in your mind and trying to handle all the nerves.

“So of course I feel incredibly proud, fulfilled.”

An edge over the field

For the first time since 2018, Djokovic arrived at Roland Garros without a victory at any of the clay-court tune-up tournaments.

He admitted he was not playing well, but deep down, he possessed the confidence that he would find the level he needed when he got into the rhythm of a two-week Grand Slam tournament. 

He dropped just one set en route to the semifinals, outlasted an overwhelmed Carlos Alcaraz in a highly-anticipated semifinal, and was especially ruthless whenever sets progressed to a tiebreak.

He dominated Ruud in the first set tiebreak on Sunday – he finished the fortnight with a perfect 6-0 record in tiebreaks – and completely took the air out of the match by streaking to a 3-0 lead in the second set.

Ruud admitted he was unable to recover from this.

“He just steps up. Either he plays ridiculous defence or he plays beautiful winners. Just doesn't do any mistakes,” said the Norwegian, who falls to 0-3 in Grand Slam finals.

Casper Ruud (R) congratulates Novak Djokovic after the 2023 Roland Garros men's singles final. (Getty Images)

“He just locks in and makes (it so) you have to play either ridiculously well to win the points or he steps up with a winner himself. 

“He knows how and when to step up. He's smart. He's played so many matches where he knows where he kind of has to raise his level.

“It's just annoying for me, but it's very, very impressive.”

Tellingly, Djokovic knows that the other players know this. 

“I felt that I have a very good chance against anybody in best-of-five. I know that most of the guys feel a lot of pressure coming into best-of-five match on Grand Slam against me, and that's exactly how I want them to feel,” he said. 

“It's good thing that you have that kind of, in a way, mental edge.”

Motivated for more

Djokovic might be 36, but his motivation does not wane. 

After winning Roland Garros – a tournament he described as his “highest mountain to climb” on a surface he finds extremely challenging – Djokovic said that he was already looking forward to Wimbledon. 

The All England Club is some of his most fruitful, prosperous territory, somewhere he has not lost since 2017. He has won the past four titles, and will return to SW19 on a 28-match winning streak.

He has a pretty good shot of winning a fifth consecutive title, considering his Grand Slam form so far this season.

“Of course (the) journey is still not over,” said the Serb, now 27-4 in 2023. “If I'm winning slams, why even think about ending the career that already has been going on for 20 years?”

When interviewed by Tennis Channel following his latest triumph in Paris, Djokovic was asked about the next significant piece of tennis history he was targeting.

“I’d like to get another chance in New York,” he answered, without hesitation.

“Of course I have to win Wimbledon … the fact that I won the last four Wimbledons gives me a lot of confidence. 

“If, if, if that happens (smiling) … I’d love to go for another chance at history in New York.”