The great players leave records in their wake, depositing them like waves on a shoreline, leaving a high-water mark for others to reach towards or wash away.
First it was Roger Federer, then it was Rafael Nadal, now it is Novak Djokovic who, with a 7-6 (7-1) 6-3 7-5 victory in the French Open final against Casper Ruud, set a new men’s record for the most grand slam titles with his 23rd win.
And, finally, after years of the record moving between the “Big Three,” it could now settle with Djokovic. His dominance in grand slams shows no sign of waning while Federer retired last year and Nadal will retire at the end of next year with injuries preventing him from competing at this year’s French Open.
Despite Ruud breaking him in his first service game of the match, Djokovic always seemed in control, particularly after winning a finely poised, grueling opening set that lasted nearly 90 minutes.
And two sets later, surrounded by other great athletes – Tom Brady, Kylian Mbappé and Zlatan Ibrahimović were all in the crowd – Djokovic confirmed his status as the most successful men’s tennis player of all time.
Novak Djokovic first addressed the crowd in French, wearing a custom hoodie with “23” embroidered on his chest, before speaking in English to tell Ruud he was “one of the best personalities on the tour.”
He added: “My team, my family, my kids, my parents, everyone is here, my two brothers aren’t here but I love them very much. You know what we’ve been through, the trials and tribulations every day.
“I know I can be a nightmare. I want to thank you first of all for patience and tolerance and that stands out. I was really torturing you so I appreciate you being my rock, and my support and really believing in me.”
Djokovic has crept slowly into the all-time great debate, his first grand slam wins punctuating half a decade of Nadal and Federer’s dominance when he was seemingly destined to be the odd one out, the one unfortunate to belong to the same era as them.
But, slowly and surely, as their powers waned and injuries took root, Djokovic emerged as the dominant player on tour – his fitness, his return of serve and his ability to make his opponent play just one more shot rendering him virtually unbeatable.
“Many congrats on this amazing achievement,” Nadal tweeted after the match. “23 is a number that just a few years back was impossible to think about, and you made it! Enjoy it with your family and team!”
Where Federer and Nadal are defined by each other, their rivalry and friendship intertwined, Djokovic occupies a space on his own, respected but perhaps not loved in quite the same way as the other two members of the “Big Three.”
His career has not been without controversy. Arguably, he could have won 23 grand slams already had it not been for his decision to remain unvaccinated against Covid-19. As a result, he was deported from Australia before the Australian Open in 2022, and missed the US Open that same year, due to the countries’ requirements for travelers to be vaccinated against the virus.
It is not just the grand slam records that he now holds. He has spent 387 weeks as the world No.1, surpassing Steffi Graff in February to set another record. Victory at this year’s French Open moves him back to his familiar spot of world No.1. Federer, meanwhile, holds the men’s record for the most consecutive weeks, 237, spent atop the rankings.
Each of the “Big Three” has become associated with a different surface during their careers – Federer with grass and Wimbledon, Nadal with clay and Roland Garros, Djokovic with the hard courts of the US Open and Australian Open.
But, by winning on Sunday, Djokovic confirmed his dominance on every surface, becoming the first male player to win each grand slam at least three times. Victory also takes Djokovic halfway to the “Calendar Slam,” winning all four major tournaments in a year, the one achievement that has so far eluded him, Federer and Nadal. He also became the oldest ever French Open champion.
An impressive start by Ruud
For all the pre-match talk about Djokovic, it was Ruud who started impressively, rattling off a service hold to love, breaking Djokovic at the third opportunity in the Serb’s first service game, and racing to a 3-0 lead.
But Djokovic displayed the qualities that have carried him to the very top of the sport, breaking back after a 28-shot rally and then holding, despite conceding a break point, to level the scores at 4-4.
Though momentum appeared to shift, Ruud clung on – bringing the raucous crowd to their feet with a between-the- legs shot that eventually won the point – and the first set remained finely poised, all the way to a tiebreak.
As the pressure ratcheted up in the tiebreak, so too did Djokovic’s game. Ruud did nothing wrong, he barely made any errors but Djokovic’s groundstrokes seemed slightly more powerful, his movement slightly sharper, and he did not make a single unforced error as he romped to a 7-1 win to take the set, after an hour and 21 minutes.
After coming so close to landing a blow during the long opening set, Ruud seemed deflated when he walked back onto court and lost the opening three games.
All the energy dissipated from the crowd too, as if they were also accepting the inevitable, that Djokovic was simply too good for anyone to challenge him.
And shortly afterwards, Djokovic took a two-set lead, winning the set with a backhand winner down the line with Ruud marooned on the other side of the court.
Ruud still refused to yield, however, saving a break point early in the third set and engineering a promising 0-30 position with Djokovic serving and trailing 3-4, but there was little he could do in the face of his opponent’s 22 winners in the final set.
Djokovic eventually broke Ruud late in the third set to take a 6-5 lead and held on to complete a famous victory as he fell to the floor, celebrating a record-breaking day.