Novak Djokovic stands alone after roaring to his 23rd Grand Slam title

PARIS — The man who fell to clay earth, splayed there and gazed skyward early Sunday evening had journeyed so improbably across the past 12-plus years that it almost hadn’t made any sense. He had dared to bolt statistically upward toward two of the damnedest colossi ever found in any sport, beginning in earnest in January 2011 as the standings stood at 16 Grand Slam men’s singles titles for Roger Federer, nine for Rafael Nadal and one for Novak Djokovic.

Twelve years, five months and bushels of humongous points on, Djokovic saw Casper Ruud’s last forehand spray wide in front of him, toppled to the brown ground behind the baseline and “felt a huge relief, and I was overwhelmed with wonderful emotions.” Suddenly, and not suddenly, the tally stood at 20 for Federer, 22 for Nadal and a mind-bending 23 for Djokovic. The 36-year-old Serb had just won the argument as the best of all time even if he refrains from that argument, just inched ahead of the other two for the first time and just won the French Open title, 7-6 (7-1), 6-3, 7-5, over Ruud of Norway, another foe of large will and talent Djokovic managed to overcome with a fortitude too mighty to describe accurately.

“It’s tough to explain how incredible it is,” Ruud told Djokovic on the court afterward, “and how good you are and, yeah, what an inspiration you are to so many people around the world.”

Sunday’s highlights: Novak Djokovic makes history with straight-sets win over Casper Ruud

It meant something still more to Djokovic that, of all four Grand Slam locations, he would end up beginning his remarks for No. 23 in his galloping French: “Bonjour, tout le monde.” (Hello, everyone.) He had finished this most inconceivable chase at his most impenetrable tournament, one he called “always the highest mountain to climb for me.”

When he saw the view from up top for a third time, joining 2016 and 2021, this erstwhile child of wartime in Belgrade became the first man to win all four Grand Slam tournaments at least thrice each, and he did so by following the long sweep of the journey, showing a rarefied mastery of on-the-fly problem-solving using his Godzilla of a mind. The first-set tiebreaker alone should have wowed any eyeballs prone to appreciate tennis, sports in general or skill in general.

In that tension — well, tension for most — Djokovic did what he does and does and does, reminiscent of the 2019 Wimbledon final when the three sets he won came in tiebreakers during which Federer’s unforced errors totaled a human 11 while Djokovic’s totaled something else: zero. He summoned a form so airtight with shots so deep and bold that it appeared Hercules himself might not scrape out a point.

Ruud did get one. He should get a smallish trophy for that.

“He sort of just goes into this mode,” Ruud said “where he just becomes, like, a wall.”

“He has this software in his head that he can switch when a Grand Slam comes,” said Goran Ivanisevic, the 2001 Wimbledon champion and Djokovic’s coach. “Grand Slam is a different sport compared to other tournaments. He switch his software.”

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Djokovic, ranked and seeded third but about to return to No. 1 for a record 388th week, went 21-2 in sets and 6-0 in tiebreakers here. The following sounds like some joke but isn’t: His totals of unforced errors in those six tiebreakers ended up as zero, zero, zero, zero, zero and zero, for a total of zero. The sixth and final one ended a set chockablock with the excellence the fourth-seeded Ruud showed in blasting to his third Grand Slam final out of the past five. It became one of those sets familiar by now, in which Djokovic thinks and fights and wriggles out of the barbed wire.

That tiebreaker began with a 16-shot rally, a 15-shot rally, a 13-shot rally — and a 3-0 Djokovic lead. Soon his serve came alive and an ace came about for 6-1. Next and last, two forehands went into the corner screaming with precision, the second a clean winner.

“Either he plays ridiculous defense or he plays beautiful winners,” Ruud said. “… 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. Yeah, it’s just annoying for me, but it’s very, very impressive.”

With that, the match settled into something these 12-plus years have taught tennis viewers to anticipate. Djokovic, after all, had won 100 Grand Slam matches in a row after winning the first set, so he’s not a bad front-runner. His jitters gone and his form raised, he began the art of commanding, having finished the steady convincing of Ruud that he would have to hit shots even closer to the lines than usual, which causes more risks, which causes more problems. “Like [Andy] Roddick said,” Ivanisevic said, “I read, he takes the legs, then he takes your soul, then he dig your grave and you have a funeral and you’re dead. Bye-bye. Thank you for coming.”

The crowd chanted Djokovic’s nickname: “Nole! Nole!” It chanted his first name: “Novak! Novak!” A narrative chant using the familiar slang meaning “greatest of all time” emanated in English from Serbian fans seated just above Djokovic’s family and team: “He’s the GOAT! He’s the GOAT!”

Finally there came another moment for accessing tennis of a caliber as good as anybody ever saw. The third set reached 5-5, and Ruud prepared to serve. Eight of the next nine points went to Djokovic, starting with a break at love. He sat down at the changeover, the Serbians sang and sang, and it came time for the peak of this far-fetched path from the 2011 Australian Open’s first round against Marcel Granollers, back just after Djokovic had spent a swatch of years doubting himself.

At 6:20 p.m., under some clouds with some blue peeking around, he walked out to serve. It felt momentous. Ruud rammed a forehand well long. A 117-mph serve coaxed a mis-hit return. A 124-mph serve earned a sitter, and Djokovic slammed that. All the chasing of those giants Federer and Nadal, all the “countless hours of thinking and analyzing what it takes to win against them on the biggest stage,” as Djokovic said, all the time with “those two guys occupying my mind for the last 15 years quite a lot — in a professional sense,” distilled to one point.

“He’s the GOAT! He’s the GOAT! He’s the GOAT!”

Soon he would fall and splay and get up and hug Ruud and look to the sky to honor Jelena Gencic, the late childhood coach he calls “my tennis mother.” He would head for the stands, hug everyone in sight, come back down, receive the trophy from Yannick Noah, receive a separate trophy etched with his 23 major wins in some sort of feat of engraving. But for now, still at the cusp, he pulled a forehand wide to lead 40-15, but the ensuing 11-shot rally always looked as if it had “Djokovic” and “23” written all over it. Ruud’s last shot strayed like a wayward bird, and somehow the Grand Slam title totals of 16-9-1 had become 20-22-23, and even the numerals themselves seemed to giggle in disbelief.

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