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regular-article-logo Saturday, 24 February 2024

French Open: Balkan fighting spirit that keeps driving Novak Djokovic

With his victory over Casper Ruud on Sunday, Djokovic becomes first to bag at least three trophies at each of the four majors

Our Bureau Published 13.06.23, 07:00 AM
Novak Djokovic jumps by the French Open trophy, his23rd grand slam singles title, in Paris on Monday.

Novak Djokovic jumps by the French Open trophy, his23rd grand slam singles title, in Paris on Monday. AP/PTI

The chase is finally over. To catch up with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal and get past their tally of tennis grand slams. Having now won his 23rd major, Novak Djokovic, whose Balkan fighting spirit shone through at the Court Philippe-Chatrier on Sunday as it had for most part of the tournament, stands alone as the undisputed tzar of tennis.

With his victory over Cas­per Ruud on Sunday, Djokovic went past Nadal’s tally of 22 singles grand slam crowns and also became the first to bag at least three trophies at each of the four majors.

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He’s 36, there are younger challengers like Carlos Alcaraz, but Djokovic would be the favourite to complete the calendar slam this year. He continues to dominate younger rivals with his stamina, as well as his overwhelmingly superior skill-set.

If he does that he would have notched up an eighth Wimbledon — to tie with Federer — and a fourth US Open. He would also become the first to achieve the calendar slam in the men’s game since Rod Laver in 1969 — Steffi Graf is the last person to get there in 1988. And Djokovic needs two more to eclipse Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 slams. He would surely have that in his sights.

There are other numbers also that make the Serb’s domination almost Bradmanesque. He has regained the world’s top ranking for a record 388th week; he holds the record for Masters 1000 titles. And has a winning record against both Federer (27-23) and Nadal (30-29).

But getting there hasn’t been easy.

Novak Djokovic with his team and family, after winning on Sunday.

Novak Djokovic with his team and family, after winning on Sunday. Twitter

Djokovic’s 7-6 (1), 6-3, 7-5 win over Ruud continued a stunning turnaround from a year and a half ago, when he was deported from Australia ahead of the Australian Open of 2022 for not being vaccinated against Covid-19. He couldn’t compete in the US Open for the same reason.

“The toughest one for me to win,” Djokovic later said of the French Open.

He admitted that Federer and Nadal had been on his mind. “I have always compared myself to these guys, because those two are the two greatest rivals I ever had in my career,” Djokovic said.

Federer, 41, has retired. Nadal, 37, has triumphed at Roland Garros an astonishing 14 times, but he is off the tour indefinitely.

But for Djokovic, the most seemingly impossible task has been winning the hearts of tennis fans, who swore by either Federer or Nadal or both but did not warm to him.

By the end of 2010, when Djokovic was 23 years old and five years past competing in his first major tournament, Federer had already won 16 grand slam titles to the Serb’s one.

In 2011, Djokovic began to storm the sport, winning the Australian and US Opens and Wimbledon. He had a 41-match winning streak and a 10-1 record against Federer and Nadal.

Maybe it was shunning gl­uten and alcohol, or the time spent in a CVAC pressurised pod — which simulates rapid changes in altitude. Maybe it was the mental strength that he developed growing up during the war in Serbia.

His coach, Goran Ivanisevic, a Croat who won Wimbledon as a wild card entrant in 2001, has attributed Djokovic’s toughness to a Balkan fighting spirit that helps him thrive when the chips are down.

Given his penchant to be a non-conformist, Djokovic has had stretches of strife. Post-Covid, he has become a model for the anti-vaxxer lobby. Landing up in Australia last year only to be put in detention as he awaited his deportation hearing. At the US Open in September 2020, he accidentally hit a ball into a line judge during the Round of 16 match and was disqualified. The next month, Nadal demolished him in straight sets in the final of the Covid-delayed French Open.

But he picked himself up. In 2021, Djokovic came within one match of achieving a calendar slam, even beating Nadal at Roland Garros, losing to Daniil Medvedev in the US Open final.

“The journey is still not over,” Djokovic said on Sunday. “If I am winning slams, why even think about ending the career?”

The Balkan spirit is still willing.

GOAT? For Novak, it’s self-belief

Paris: The query was swift and direct. Novak Djokovic’s reply was slow, thoughtful and revelatory.

“How does it feel,” a reporter wanted to know, “to be the greatest male player in history?”

No man has won as many grand slam titles — 23 — as Novak did on Sunday. Rafael Nadal has 22 and Roger Federer, who retired last year, has 20.

For years the debate has swirled over which should be considered the ‘GOAT’ — ‘Greatest of All Time’.

“I don’t want to say that I am the greatest, because it’s disrespectful towards all the great champions in different eras of our sport that was played in a completely different way,” Djokovic said.

“I feel like each great champion of his own generation has left a huge mark, a legacy.

“I leave those kind of discussions to someone else. I have, of course, huge confidence and belief (in) myself and for everything that I am and what I am capable of doing. So this trophy is another confirmation of the quality of tennis that I’m still able to produce.”

AP/PTI

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