Djokovic delivers No. 23 to make history at Roland Garros

Djokovic, who has always confidently talked about his burning desire to break records and make history, did both with his 23rd Grand Slam singles title at the Roland Garros.

Published : Jun 12, 2023 18:06 IST - 18 MINS READ

Djokovic kisses The Musketeers’ Cup after winning his 23rd grand slam trophy at the French Open on the Bir-Hakeim bridge.
Djokovic kisses The Musketeers’ Cup after winning his 23rd grand slam trophy at the French Open on the Bir-Hakeim bridge. | Photo Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Djokovic kisses The Musketeers’ Cup after winning his 23rd grand slam trophy at the French Open on the Bir-Hakeim bridge. | Photo Credit: GETTY IMAGES

The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

When he was an adorable lad of seven, Novak Djokovic did his first interview on a Serbian TV station. With his cap turned backward and spinning his racket, Novak was asked if he considered tennis a game or an obligation. He declared, “Tennis, for me, is an obligation. My goal is to become a tennis champion.”

From an early age, Djokovic pursued that goal with as much ambition and single-mindedness as any superstar in any field ever has. He left no stone unturned from his hyper-nutritious diet to his supreme physical fitness—his wife Jelena says at home he’s frequently stretching—to using the latest restorative devices, such as a hyperbaric chamber and the cow patch he wore this Paris fortnight on his chest that supposedly combines acupuncture with light heat.

After outclassing world No. 4 Casper Ruud 7-6, 6-3, 7-5 in the French Open final, Djokovic spoke with the same passion, poise, and precision to the admiring 15,000 Court Philippe-Chatrier spectators. “I’d like to send a message to every young person out there—tennis, sports, or anything else. I was a seven-year-old dreaming about winning Wimbledon. I’m beyond grateful to be standing here,” said Djokovic, wearing a jacket with the symbolic “23” boldly emblazoned on it.

“I had the power to create my own destiny. I visualise everything in my life and feel it with every cell in my body. Forget about what happened in the past, and if you want a better future, you create it.”

From Novak’s first Grand Slam title at the 2008 Australian Open at age 20 to this Roland Garros masterclass at age 36, his toughest opponent beside Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer—the other greats in the legendary Big Three—has occasionally been himself. The first to acknowledge “I’ve made a lot of mistakes,” the stubborn Serb would likely have captured even more majors had he not refused to be vaccinated for Covid-19, thus preventing him from playing at the Australian Open and US Open last year.

Djokovic wearing a jacket with the symbolic “23” boldly emblazoned on it.
Djokovic wearing a jacket with the symbolic “23” boldly emblazoned on it. | Photo Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Djokovic wearing a jacket with the symbolic “23” boldly emblazoned on it. | Photo Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Even so, Djokovic, who has always confidently talked about his burning desire to break records and make history, did both with his 23 rd Grand Slam singles title. This landmark title broke the hallowed record he shared with Nadal, who was sadly absent from Roland Garros, which he won last year for an astounding 14 th time. During the fortnight, the Spanish superstar underwent hip surgery.

The historic No. 23 in 2023 also gave Djokovic his third French Open crown. That made him the only man to win at least three titles at all four majors. It tied him with Serena Williams at 23, one behind Margaret Court’s 24. It would surprise few tennis cognoscenti if he surpassed both of these lady legends, but it’ll be tougher for The Djoker to equal Steffi’s Graf’s record of four or more titles at every major.

There’s another record Djokovic has on his mind now: winning all four majors in a calendar year. Considered the Holy Grail of tennis, it’s been achieved only by Don Budge (1938) and Rod Laver (1962 and 1969) on the men’s side. Novak won three majors in 2011 and 2015, each time faltering at Roland Garros. In 2021, he came heartbreakingly close, losing to Daniil Medvedev in the US Open final. He’s halfway to the Grand Slam now with Wimbledon, which he won for the seventh time last year, coming up soon.

A co-favorite to win this French Open, No. 3 Djokovic ended up in the same half of the draw as No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz. With a career record on clay vastly superior to that of No. 2 Daniil Medvedev, who had a poor 7-6 mark at Roland Garros, Djokovic clearly earned at least the No. 2 seed. Instead, draw-watchers eagerly anticipated the Djokovic-Alcaraz semifinal, rather than a New Gen vs. Old Gen final.

Alcaraz, the youngest and first teenage world No. 1 and year-end No. 1 in ATP Rankings history (since 1973), burnished his clay-court credentials by taking tournaments at Barcelona and Madrid this spring. Despite missing the Australian Open due to a leg injury, he won four tournaments and amassed an impressive 30-3 match record, going 20-2 on clay. He also boasted a perfect 5-0 mark this year against top-10 foes. “Alcaraz is the most complete player I’ve ever seen at 20,” said former No. 1 John McEnroe.

At Roland Garros, Alcaraz looked almost invincible before the semifinals. With his precocious mixture of ferocious power and finesse, exceptional speed, and Nadal-like competitiveness, he crushed all five opponents going into the semifinals, most notably No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas, No. 17 Lorenzo Musetti, and No. 26 Denis Shapovalov. All of these young standouts, while talented shotmakers, used one-handed backhands that Carlos punished ruthlessly. Meanwhile, Novak’s sternest test came in the quarterfinals against No. 11 seed Karen Khachanov, who had reached the semis at the past two majors. He prevailed against the 27-year Russian 4-6, 7-6 (1), 6-2, 6-4.

“The Battle of the Ages”—the 16-year age gap was the largest since Jim Courier whipped Jimmy Connors at the 1991 US Open—sizzled for two sets. After Alcaraz broke Djokovic’s serve at love to take the second set 7-5 to even the match, he casually chatted with his team in the player’s box. At that point, Courier, now a Tennis Channel analyst, said, “It’s living up to its incredible hype.”

Then cramps wracked the 20-year-old Spanish phenom after two hours and 11 minutes of hard-hitting and fast-running tennis. What happened?

The consistently penetrating shots of Djokovic, along with the 87-degree heat, and especially the mental pressure of facing the sport’s new GOAT did in the flashy but sometimes erratic Alcaraz.

Alcaraz looked prime to win his first French Open title before running into Djokovic in the semifinals.
Alcaraz looked prime to win his first French Open title before running into Djokovic in the semifinals. | Photo Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Alcaraz looked prime to win his first French Open title before running into Djokovic in the semifinals. | Photo Credit: GETTY IMAGES

After his disappointing 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 loss, Carlos, seeded No. 1 at a major for the first time, explained his predicament. “If someone says that he [goes on] court with no nerves playing against Novak, he lies. At the beginning of the third set, I started to cramp every part of my body, not only the legs. The arms, as well, every part of the legs. I started the match really nervous. The tension of the first set, the second set, it was really intense two sets as well. Really good rallies, tough rallies, you know, drop shots, sprints, rallies. It’s a combination of a lot of things. But, you know, the main thing, it was the tension that I had in the first two sets.”

Before cramps hobbled his running, Alcaraz gave sports fans what they’ve come to expect from this incredible athlete: the shot of the tournament. Serving at 1-1, 15-0 in the second set, Alcaraz hit a nifty drop shot that a sprinting Djokovic returned way past the seemingly stranded Spaniard. Carlos The Speedster raced to the baseline, and with his back to the net, somehow flicked a rocket forehand that sped past Novak and landed just inside the sideline. Alcaraz flashed a broad smile, while the amazed Djokovic also smiled.

Carlos will have to address his cramping problem, which struck him in previous tournaments against Tsitsipas, Jannik Sinner, and Cam Norrie. Nerves, as much as the heat and taxing rallies, are his undoing. “I’ve seen players cramp in the first set of a Davis Cup match simply because they’re so nervous,” said Courier, a former U.S. Davis Cup captain.

History was on the line for Ruud, too. He coveted his first Grand Slam title after Nadal overwhelmed him in the 2022 Roland Garros final and Alcaraz defeated him in the US Open final three months later. He didn’t want the “bridesmaid” label attached similarly to Ivan Lendl and Andy Murray, after losing their first four major finals.

The mild-mannered Norwegian had a modest 22-11 match record entering Roland Garros. But Ruud quickly regained his 2022 form on the terre battue (“beaten earth”) he relishes. He dropped a set to Italian qualifier Giulio Zeppieri and hard-hitting Chinese Zhang Zhizhen, defeated much-improved Chilean Nicolas Jarry in straight sets, and then fast-rising, No. 6 seed Holger Rune in an all-Scandinavian quarterfinal. Seemingly worn out from his grueling, five-set victory over Francisco Cerundolo, Rune meekly succumbed 6-1, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.

In the semifinals, Ruud faced Alexander “Sascha” Zverev. A year ago in the same round here, the 6’6” German sprinted for a Nadal shot and screamed in agony when he fell awkwardly. He tore three ankle ligaments, which were surgically repaired. In the weakest quarter of the draw, 22 nd-seeded Zverev eliminated No. 12 Frances Tiafoe, No. 28 Grigor Dimitrov, and Tomas Martin Etcheverry, a fast-rising Argentine.

Sascha’s feel-good comeback story ended abruptly when Ruud ran him ragged in a 6-3, 6-4, 6-0 rout. Zverev summed it up well: “I got my ass kicked. There’s no question about it.”

Smart tactics proved critical. Returning serves from 15-20 feet behind the baseline and averaging a lofty 79” of net clearance, Ruud defused the German’s explosive serve. The Norwegian also used a 1-2 passing shot stratagem, forcing the towering Zverev to hit a low volley or half volley on the first passing shot and then finishing off the weak return with another passing shot. Finally, Ruud slice served wide in the deuce court to Zverev’s weaker forehand and then whacked his own potent forehand into the open court. The scoreline was no surprise as Zverev had a woeful 1-12 record against top 10 players at Grand Slam events.

Against Djokovic in the final, Ruud’s strategy was to hit high-trajectory, high-bouncing, topspin groundstrokes to frustrate the Serb and then attack short balls with his trademark high-velocity forehand. It worked—for a while at least. Casper, who had lost their four previous matches in straight sets, put Novak on the defensive and surged to leads of 3-0 and 4-1. But serving at 4-2, Ruud hit an overhead into the net and lost his serve. When Djokovic came back from love-30 to hold serve for 5-all, chants of “Nole! Nole! Nole!”—his nickname—reverberated around Court Philippe-Chatrier.

A nifty Djokovic backhand drop shot winner made it 6-all. Tiebreaker Time. No champion—male or female—plays tiebreakers better than the skillful Serb. His 14-4 overall tiebreaker record this year featured a perfect 5-0 at Roland Garros, where he won 35 of 47 tiebreaker points and committed no unforced errors. This time, Novak started the tiebreaker with a sensational forehand winner on the dead run and ended the 7-1 TB with another forehand winner.

Then Djokovic, who looked tired in the first set, streaked to a 3-0 lead in the second set. “You can’t hit the ball cleaner than Djokovic is doing now,” said NBC analyst McEnroe.

Novak clinched the second set, 6-3, holding serve at love. On set point, a wicked kick serve wide to Ruud’s vulnerable backhand elicited a weak return. Djokovic put it away with a backhand down-the-line winner.

Mary Carillo, the pithy NBC analyst, said, “Novak knows he can’t live forever. But he’s dead set on leaving something that will.”

That “something” was a bunch of all-time records. The immortality Djokovic yearned for was only a set away. The evenly divided and often fickle French spectators wanted another set. When Djokovic fell behind love-30 in the eighth game, they shouted “Ruuuuuuud! Ruuuuuuuud!” which sounded like they were booing, but they weren’t. Djokovic held serve anyway, for 4-all.

At 4-5, Djokovic made the world No. 4 appear like a mere foil to display his greatness. Like Michael Jordan scoring at will in the NBA Finals or Tom Brady (who was sitting next to Novak’s wife) throwing touchdown passes late in a Super Bowl game, Djokovic smacked seven winners to grab the 12 of the last 13 points.

The result was predictable, and probably even the decisive 7-6 (1), 6-3, 7-5 score.

We’ve also become accustomed to Novak’s passionate and elaborate victory celebrations. For No. 23, he lay down on his back with his eyes closed, then got up and raised his arms triumphantly and smiled, and bent his knees where he stayed for 30 seconds, perhaps pondering his latest feat. Novak then jumped for joy and pumped his fist in the air. The final and most emotional scene saw him hugging his family and team.

On the podium, Djokovic graciously praised his valiant opponent both for his stellar tennis and as a respected and well-liked sportsman. Ruud reciprocated, telling the capacity crowd, “Another day, another record for you. Another day you rewrite tennis history. It’s tough to explain how incredible it is, how good you are, what an inspiration you are to so many around the world.”

Minutes later in an NBC interview, Ruud said, “Novak is not human at times. It’s scary how good he can play. I had a game plan. It worked well in the beginning. But he had all the answers. Twenty-three [major titles] is a ridiculous number.”

Even if Djokovic never wins another Grand Slam title—which seems unlikely because he’s captured six of the last eight majors he’s played—his “23” will long be remembered and revered.

“I predict that record will last 50 years,” said McEnroe. “No one will ever come close.”

Queen of Clay Reigns Again at Roland Garros

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” – William Shakespeare

The young queen had ruled with an iron fist. In seizing three Grand Slam titles, Iga Swiatek had never lost a set in the final. This time, Her Majesty dominated Karolina Muchova 6-2, 3-0, and her reign seemed assured.

It was almost impertinent to think a 100-1 pre-tournament longshot could turn the massive tide and challenge the defending champion and world No. 1.

Iga Swiatek of Poland kisses the Suzanne Lenglen Trophy on the Bir-Hakeim bridge after winning the Women’s Singles Title in the 2023 French Open. 
Iga Swiatek of Poland kisses the Suzanne Lenglen Trophy on the Bir-Hakeim bridge after winning the Women’s Singles Title in the 2023 French Open.  | Photo Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Iga Swiatek of Poland kisses the Suzanne Lenglen Trophy on the Bir-Hakeim bridge after winning the Women’s Singles Title in the 2023 French Open.  | Photo Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Swiatek, 22, was steamrolling the four-years-older but less-experienced Czech. Much like the legendary Steffi Graf, the 5’9” Pole combines a sledgehammer forehand with a solid backhand, blazing speed, and the intense focus of a diamond cutter.

But Muchova, whose No. 43 ranking belies her natural athleticism and versatile game, has always believed she was destined for stardom. A string of injuries derailed her career ever since a huge growth spurt at age 16 damaged her knees and back. Sidelined by an abdominal injury for seven months 2021, she missed the 2022 Australian Open. Karolina was in such bad health, she recalled, “Some doctors told me, maybe you’ll not do sport anymore.” Her positivity and perseverance were tested again a year ago at Roland Garros when the hard-luck Czech left the court in a wheelchair and in tears after spraining an ankle during a third-round match.

Now Muchova, in her first major final, would have to summon all her positivity and perseverance.

Could Karolina somehow conjure another miracle comeback after rallying to stun No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka 7-6, 6-7, 7-5 in a semifinal thriller? Down 5-2 in the deciding set, she fended off a match point, and reeled off 20 of the last 24 points.

Despite winning just one career title, Muchova showed her terrific potential by racking up a perfect 5-0 record against No. 1-ranked players—with four coming at the majors and on all three surfaces. Remarkably, the Czech wasn’t aware of this feat until being told after defeating Sabalenka.

Tennis is a sport of momentum. When Muchova belted a backhand winner and an unreachable backhand volley to narrow the second lead to 3-1, Jason Goodall, the Tennis Channel analyst, presciently said, “Those two points could be a game changer.” Indeed they were, as Karolina smacked three forehand winners to break serve and make it 3-2.

Swiatek had a superb 53-1 record on clay after winning the first set. Muchova likely didn’t know this stat, but, ironically, she dealt Swiatek that sole loss four years ago at a small Prague event when both were ranked around 100. She remembered that victory, though, and perhaps drew some confidence from it.

After the Czech evened the score at 3-all, NBC analyst John McEnroe offered, “Muchova is thinking if she’s going to lose, she’s going to go down swinging.”

The pressure finally got to Swiatek. Serving at 4-all, 30-40, she timidly double faulted in the net to get broken. But nerves also betrayed Muchova when she served to win the set, making four unforced errors to lose serve for 5-all. After yet another break, Karolina again served for the set at 6-5.

At 40-all, the elite athletes fashioned the most spectacular point of the high-quality match. The Czech’s extremely angled forehand volley sent the Pole sprinting outside the alley. There, she somehow scraped the ball up and sent it along the sideline. Muchova lunged mightily and managed to hit a backhand crosscourt volley that even the speedy Swiatek couldn’t reach. A point later, the heavy underdog won the 7-5 set when Swiatek’s serve return sailed deep.

The unseeded Muchova reached her maiden Grand Slam final.
The unseeded Muchova reached her maiden Grand Slam final. | Photo Credit: GETTY IMAGES

The unseeded Muchova reached her maiden Grand Slam final. | Photo Credit: GETTY IMAGES

On the stunning turnabout, McEnroe said, “Muchova is finally healthy and showing what she’s capable of.”

Capitalising on her momentum to start the deciding set, Karolina grabbed eight straight points! The last two came on her fourth and fifth aces. In full flight, Muchova evoked memories of another gifted and graceful, all-court Czech star, Hana Mandlikova, who captured four majors in the 1980s. “Muchova plays a game that no one else on the WTA Tour plays now,” said Tennis Channel analyst Lindsay Davenport. “That has rattled Swiatek.”

Suddenly, unpredictably, the momentum shifted again. The re-energized, more disciplined Swiatek then took 12 of the next 14 points to pull ahead 3-2. The Pole couldn’t stand prosperity, though, and lost her serve to fall behind 4-3.

In yet another turnabout, Swiatek broke serve for 4-all, thanks to a clutch backhand volley winner to earn break point and a dreadful tactical blunder by Muchova—a forehand drop shot that plopped into the middle of the net. “Wrong shot at the wrong time from the wrong place,” said Davenport.

When Swiatek fell behind love-30, she responded with a booming, 94-mph forehand winner. The crowd reacted with chants of “Iga! Iga! Iga!” The Pole held serve for 5-4. Succumbing to nerves, the valiant but now-erratic Czech faltered in the last game, sadly double-faulting on championship point.

The winner and still Queen of Clay bent down on her knees and cried tears of joy and relief. Swiateks’s 6-2, 5-7, 6-4 triumph lasted two hours and 46 minutes, the longest match in her illustrious French Open career.

“She was burdened by the pressure of this one,” said NBC analyst Mary Carillo. “She passed the test.”

Swiatek agreed with that assessment. “A big challenge,” she said. “Really proud of myself that I did it.”

On the courtside camera lens, Iga wrote: “#4. Surreal. Thank you, Paris.”

Swiatek thus joined Monica Seles, Roger Federer, and Naomi Osaka as the only players to win their first four Grand Slam finals in the Open Era. Iga also became the youngest player to capture four majors since Serena Williams in 2002.

The runner-up also wept in her chair as the crowd cheered for both players and then again before she spoke during the trophy ceremony. On the bittersweet result, Muchova said, “This was so close, but yet so far. That happens when you play one of the best: Iga.” She added, “I’m very exhausted but I’m happy. I learned I can make it to the final at a Grand Slam. It’s very motivational for me.”

That Muchova’s best tournament came on clay, her least favorite surface—until now, she says—should also encourage her. “Iga is No. 1 in the world and I was so close.” Her diverse offensive skills seem most suited for hard courts and grass, as evidenced by her reaching the 2021 Australian Open semifinals and Wimbledon quarterfinals in 2018-19 and 2021.

Roland Garros spectators were treated to a video of the career highlights of 1970s-’80s superstar Chris Evert, who like Navratilova, her longtime friend and rival, is a cancer survivor. On the podium, Evert chatted with her potential heir-apparent.

Later Evert recounted to Eurosport what she said. “A break down twice [in the deciding set], and the shots she came up with! I was just complimenting her on how she played with her back to the wall, and only champions can play like that when they are down.

“She’s just hungry. There are champions that win one Slam and that’s enough, but there are players that are really hungry—Monica Seles, Steffi Graf, myself and Martina Navratilova, and I think Iga is the same type of person.

“She hits the ball harder than a man. She can take those mid-court balls and volley them. She can still improve. She’s going to be in for the long haul, and I told her—you’ve won three French Opens, I won seven. You’re only 22, you’re going to go past that. You can go to eight, nine, 10. But she’s got to pace herself and make sure she’s not injured.”

Evert, a relentlessly consistent baseliner with a lightweight serve, managed to win three Wimbledon crowns. The next test for Swiatek comes July 3 at the Big W, where she’s never reached the quarterfinals. Besides heavy hitters Sabalenka and defending champion Elena Rybakina, Iga may also face a new threat on grass: Muchova.

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