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Novak Djokovic’s 23rd Grand Slam win had all the hallmarks of what brought him to this record-breaking pinnacle
By believing in a career with “no limits,” one where “everything is possible,” Djokovic has made himself the Grand Slam king by winning everywhere, on every surface—in an era that included two other all-time greats.
Published Jun 11, 2023
WATCH: Novak Djokovic speaks with Tennis Channel after defeating Casper Ruud in the championship match of 2023 Roland Garros.
What’s the least-subtle signal that a great, 36-year-old tennis player can send about his future plans? Having Tom Brady sit next to his wife during the Roland Garros final, you say?
Novak Djokovic made it happen on Sunday. Brady, gray stubble and all, was there to witness the Serb’s most significant career-crowning achievement yet: A 7-6 (1), 6-3, 7-5 win over Casper Ruud that gave him his 23rd Grand Slam victory.
After nearly two decades of chasing his Big 3 rivals, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, Djokovic had finally—and probably permanently—passed them in their three-way major-title race. But the presence of Brady, who won the last of his seven Super Bowls at 43, makes it seem as if Djokovic doesn’t believe he’ll stop adding to that record anytime soon.
There was no evidence on Sunday that he should believe anything else. Djokovic’s 23rd was as convincing, in its way, as any of the others that came before. He didn’t face either Federer or Nadal this time, and he didn’t have to pull off any of his patented five-set Houdini acts. But he did hammer his way through three much-younger players ranked in the Top 11, including No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz and No. 4 Casper Ruud. While Alcaraz couldn’t fully compete due to cramps in the semifinals, his condition was partly caused by the mere presence of Djokovic on the other side of the net.
“Is not easy to play against Novak, you know,” Alcaraz admitted. “Of course a legend of our sport. If someone says that he gets into the court with no nerves playing against Novak, he lies.”
Ruud didn’t appear to suffer from the same awe-inspired tension in the final. He came out hitting the ball cleanly, and even briefly flummoxed Djokovic by forcing him to leap for his high-bouncing ground strokes. In the end, though, Ruud’s efforts only inspired Djokovic to put on another vintage performance on one of tennis’s four biggest stages.
Most of the hallmarks of an important Djokovic victory were present.
There was the early edginess. In the first set, Djokovic huffed and puffed, grabbed at his legs, fell down, moved slowly between points, and argued that the chair umpire should give the players more time between changeovers.
There was the survival-mode resourcefulness. Down 4-5, 0-30, two points from losing the first set, he found a way to survive by coming to the net and shortening the rallies. He won four straight points and held for 5-5.
There was “lockdown mode” in the first-set tiebreaker. After looking out of sorts for the first 70 minutes or so, Djokovic was suddenly, and characteristically, flawless in the tiebreaker. He started with a rifle-shot forehand winner down the line; won a point with brilliant defense; won one with a backhand pass; and finished with a service winner and another forehand winner.
There was the gradual but inevitable grinding down of his opponent. Once Djokovic had a set in his pocket, he relaxed and set about breaking down Ruud’s baseline attack, in particular his backhand. That shot, which had been a heavy-topspin weapon in the early stages, slowly deteriorated into a slice that landed in the bottom of the net.
There was the closer’s mentality. In the third set, Ruud held for 5-4, and seemed for a second to have emerged from his mid-match funk. How did Djokovic react? He won 12 of the next 13 points, many of them with the most powerful and confident-looking ground strokes he had hit all day, to claim the title.
“I knew that going into the tournament, going into the match especially today, that there’s history on the line, but I tried to focus my attention and my thoughts into preparing for this match in the best way possible to win like any other match,” Djokovic said. “We did, I think, a great job into just staying into the present moment and performing as good as we wanted to."
Finally, there was his ability to rise to the occasion, which is something he has improved with age. In Djokovic’s first 16 Grand Slam finals, he was 8-8; in the 18 since, he's 15-3. So far this year, he has won three titles, two of which have been majors; it would hardly be surprising if the only two events he wins the rest of the year are Wimbledon and the US Open.
Djokovic also had a mediocre clay-court season, and didn’t look as robust as he usually does during the first week at Roland Garros. In the quarterfinals, Karen Khachanov took the first set from him, and pushed the second to a tiebreaker. A loss in that breaker would have put Djokovic behind the eight-ball. And that’s exactly when he made his stand, winning it 7-0 and never looking back. Djokovic doesn’t dominate everywhere anymore; he just wins when it matters. Only when he stops doing that can we claim he’s in decline.
Afterward, Djokovic, who is the first man to win all four Grand Slam titles three times, talked about what it meant to break the record at the major where he has been, relatively speaking, the least-successful.
“It’s kind of symbolic in a way that I won my historic 23rd here in Roland Garros, makes it even sweeter and greater knowing what it takes to win Roland Garros for me. It’s not to take anything away from of course the winning of any other Slam, but just Roland Garros is a highest mountain to climb for me I think in my career. That’s why it’s even more satisfying.”
Djokovic has made himself the Grand Slam king by winning everywhere, on every surface, in an era that included two other all-time greats. He did it, as he has said many times, and which he repeated today, by believing in a career with “no limits,” one where “everything is possible.”
After the match, Nadal, the man Djokovic passed today, congratulated Djokovic with a tweet that read, in part, “23 was a number that just a few years back was impossible to think about, and you made it!”
There was one person who surely did believe it was possible: Novak Djokovic. He knows a lot more could be, too.