The world No. 1 overcame a dismal start to stop Murray in the title round contest 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4. The historical overtones were substantial. Djokovic has established himself as only the eighth man in the history of the game to win all four majors across a career. Fred Perry of Great Britain was the first to realize that monumental feat in 1935, followed by the great J. Donald Budge of the United States in 1938, Rodney George Laver of Australia in 1962, Aussie Roy Emerson in 1964, Andre Agassi in 1999, Roger Federer in 2009, and Rafael Nadal in 2010.
That is a club of extraordinarily accomplished individuals. Djokovic must be proud to be in that exclusive company, and he is eminently worthy of the honor. But with this triumph, Djokovic realized another feat of perhaps an even higher order. This was his fourth major title in a row since losing to Stan Wawrinka in the 2015 Roland Garros final. No one in the men’s game had hit that milestone since Laver won his second Grand Slam in 1969. It had been 47 years, and that was no accident.
Winning all four major events in a single season for a calendar year Grand Slam is in my mind the crowning achievement in tennis. And Djokovic may yet join Budge (1938) and Laver (1962 and 1969) as the only men to take the Grand Slam. He is half way there now by virtue of capturing the first two majors of 2016 at the Australian Open and now at Roland Garros. The last man to be in that position was one Jim Courier in 1992, but he fell early at Wimbledon and the dream ended abruptly.
Courier never won Wimbledon, although he reached the final a year later. But Djokovic will be the clear favorite to garner a third Centre Court crown in a row (and a fourth overall) next month. My feeling is that he will be in a comfortable place when the leading players assemble again in London because he has the monkey off his back now after prevailing for the first time on the Paris clay in his fourth final—and in his twelfth appearance at the French Open. In my view, that will make the Serbian even more formidable than usual on the grass; his confidence will be remarkable, his spirits soaring, and his sense of impending glory immense.
But let’s pause now to review the Djokovic-Murray final. Remember that the British competitor established himself as only the tenth man in the Open Era (which started in 1968) to make it to all four major singles finals. That is a distinguished cast including Laver, Ken Rosewall, Stefan Edberg, Courier, Ivan Lendl, Agassi, Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic. Although Murray has now suffered defeat in no fewer than eight of his ten Grand Slam tournament finals, the fact remains that he has landed in very lofty territory that few players inhabit, and he must be commended.
But in this battle of 29-year-old players who were born one week apart back in 1987, Murray was beaten for the 24th time in 34 career duels against the Serbian. And yet, he was the much sturdier warrior at the outset. Murray came out of the gates looking thoroughly prepared and purposeful, while Djokovic was strangely out of sorts and seemingly lost in his private emotions. Djokovic could not find the right balance between intensity and serenity; he was caught in a mindset that put him at a deep disadvantage.
Djokovic did play impeccably to break at love in the opening game of the match, making headway with a drop shot winner, a netted backhand down the line from Murray, another drop shot that set up a passing shot winner, and a scorching forehand return that left Murray helpless. It was swiftly 1-0 for Djokovic, but he fell just as quickly into disarray, losing the next four games to fall behind 4-1 as Murray collected 16 of 20 points in that span.
Djokovic lost his serve at 30, making a pair of forehand unforced errors in that game. Murray sealed the break with a backhand topspin lob winner. He held at love in the third game with an ace out wide in the ad court, and then broke a beleaguered Djokovic in the fourth game as Djokovic was guilty of three more unforced mistakes, including a backhand that flew long at 15-40. Murray held at 15 with another ace as Djokovic simply could not find his range.
Serving in the sixth game, Djokovic remained passive and out of sorts, but held on from deuce for 2-4. Murray was somewhat tight as he served in the seventh game. He needed five game points but finally held for 5-2, closing out that hold with an ace at 210 kilometers and an unanswerable second serve with surprising velocity at 169 kilometers. A still listless Djokovic held from 15-30 with a run of three points that concluded with an ace, but Murray raced to 40-0 in the next game. Despite a double fault and then a superb backhand down the line from the Serbian, Murray held on at 30 to take the set 6-3.
Djokovic realized how much he needed to make his move early in the second set, but that was easier imagined than done. He led 40-15 in the first game, missed badly off the backhand, and then double faulted. A passing shot winner from Murray gave him break point, but Djokovic saved it with an overhead winner from on top of the net. He held on from there for 1-0, and that was crucial.
Murray netted a backhand drop shot in the second game for 15-40, saved one break point with a brave second serve, but double faulted long to fall behind 2-0. Djokovic was building enthusiasm and developing self belief. He held at 15 for 3-0. The Serbian’s ragged play from the backcourt was replaced by more discipline, better footwork, and cleaner ball striking.
Murray escaped from 15-40 in the following game, holding with an ace for 1-3. But the complexion of the contest had been radically altered. Djokovic had found his rhythm, range and even his gumption. He was buoyed by a eupeptic crowd that cheered his every move, some of them Serbians, others Parisians who sympathized with his plight. It resembled a Davis Cup atmosphere at times. To be sure, it was tough on Murray, but for Djokovic this was welcome relief after dealing with so many crowds in recent years who seemed to take his talent for granted.
Djokovic played an exemplary game to hold at 15 for 4-1 in that second set, opening with a forehand volley winner crosscourt, closing with a forehand drop volley into the clear. He was fully into the flow of the match. With Murray serving at 15-15 in the sixth game, Djokovic stunned him with a stretch return off the backhand, sending it back low and hurrying Murray into a mistake. He surged to 15-40 and then broke the British player with a barrage of big groundstrokes, creating the opening for a backhand down the line winner.
At 5-1, Djokovic held at 15. The shot of that game was a glorious forehand crosscourt winner for 40-15 off a forehand slice on the run from a harried Murray. Set to Djokovic, 6-1. It had taken him only 32 minutes to capture the second set, and his momentum was strikingly apparent. After Murray held in the opening game of the pivotal third set, he pushed Djokovic to deuce, only to miss a backhand slice wide. Djokovic pounded a forehand crosscourt winner behind Murray to reach level ground in the set at 1-1. But now he was off and running again.
Serving at 1-1, 30-40, Murray approached forcefully with great depth, but somehow Djokovic kept his passing shot just low enough to coax an error on the forehand volley from the British player. Djokovic then held at 30 for 3-1, and now he was raising his game to almost unimaginable heights. With Murray serving at 1-3, 30-40, the No. 2 seed hit an impressive drop shot to the Serbian’s backhand side. Djokovic moved with alacrity to cover it, and chipped a backhand pass acutely crosscourt for a dazzling winner and a double break.
Murray put up a stern fight in the next game, which went to four deuces. But Djokovic held on steadfastly, saving four break points in the process. Murray held for 2-5, but Djokovic rolled to 40-0 in the eighth game, and eventually held at 30 to seal the set 6-2, as Murray erred with a two-hander long. Djokovic had rallied from a set down to take the next two sets with almost immaculate tennis, and he sustained that lofty level deep into the fourth set.
In the opening game of the fourth, Djokovic broke Murray at 15 with one of his patented returns that landed almost on the baseline. Murray was forced into an error. Djokovic held at 15 for 2-0, and his focus now was so laser-like that Murray felt under siege almost every time he served. Murray survived a difficult deuce game to hold for 1-2 before Djokovic held at love in the fourth game. With Murray serving at 1-3, he was break point down. Djokovic sent a very good drop shot down the line, but Murray got up to that ball beautifully and whipped a forehand crosscourt with interest. Djokovic could not get that shot back into play. Murray held on for 2-3. But then Djokovic took his game up another notch again. He held at love for 4-2 and then broke Murray at love for 5-2, accentuating his greatness by opening up the court wide to Murray’s forehand and lacing a down the line forehand into a wide open space.
Djokovic was right where he wanted to be, up two sets to one, ahead by two breaks in the fourth set, serving for the match. He led 5-2,15-0 and elected to employ the drop shot again. But Murray came forward swiftly and sent an angled forehand crosscourt out of reach for a startling winner. Had Djokovic taken that point and moved to 30-0, the match would almost surely have been over. But Murray was buoyed by his timely winner. He won the next point with a backhand winner behind Djokovic. The world No. 1 then went for a 177 kilometer second serve and double faulted. Murray followed with a forehand passing shot that whistled by Djokovic.
Now serving at 3-5, Murray held at 30, forcing Djokovic to make a second go of serving out the match in the tenth game. Djokovic took a short backhand slice from Murray and angled a backhand of his own at the sharpest possible angle for an astonishing winner, raising his arms to the crowd in appreciation of what he had just pulled off. He then came forward and was somewhat cautious with one overhead and then a second one, but Murray lobbed long.
Djokovic had advanced to 5-4, 40-15, double match point. Inexplicably, he went for too much on his second serve and double faulted. Awfully apprehensive now, Djokovic steered a backhand down the line wide. It was deuce. This was reminiscent of the U.,S. Open final last year when Djokovic led Roger Federer two sets to one and 5-2 in the fourth, again with a double break in hand. In that case, he lost two games in a row and had to hold on from 15-40 at 5-4 before closing out the Swiss Maestro.
This time against Murray, in a similar situation, Djokovic was very gutsy at deuce, taking a comfortable swing at a forehand drive volley and putting it away cleanly for a winner to set up a third match point. In a 20 stroke exchange, Djokovic slipped slightly after hitting a forehand down the line but Murray netted a backhand crosscourt. Victory went to Djokovic 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4. In gaining his fifth triumph in seven major finals against Murray, Djokovic connected with 69% of his first serves, while Murray was down at 50%.Djokovic won 58% of his second serve points, 18% better than Murray. And Djokovic finished with 41 winners, 18 more than Murray.
Those were the prime reasons for the Djokovic victory. He correctly recalled after the match that both Federer and Rafael Nadal had serious opportunities to sweep four majors in a row. In 2006, Federer came here to Paris and won the first set from Nadal in the title round match, and he was only two sets away from winning four consecutive Grand Slam events. But he lost that match in four sets. A year later, the Swiss was going for four in a row again when he came to Roland Garros, but Nadal stopped him in another four set final. Nadal himself went to the Australian Open of 2011 in search of four straight majors, but he bowed out there against David Ferrer in the quarterfinals.
Djokovic is utterly determined to keep exploiting his chances as he rules so majestically in today’s world of tennis. He has now been in six Grand Slam tournament finals in succession since the start of 2015, winning five of those events. No one had ever entered Roland Garros more times before breaking through at the shrine of the clay court game. And yet, his appetite to succeed on the premier stages of the sport remains insatiable.
He has now captured 12 major titles at the age of 29. There is no reason why he can’t remain at or near his current level through the 2018 season. By that time, I would expect that he just might catch Roger Federer, who has won 17. The task will be arduous. He must make the most of each and every one of his opportunities. But only a fool would not take Novak Djokovic seriously as he continues his journey to make a case for himself as potentially the best ever to play the game of tennis.