After winning the French Open, is Novak Djokovic the best ever?

It’s really good, but ugh.
Photo: Getty Images

When discussing the history of tennis, people’s tastes will always influence and debate the fiascos over what it is and what places they hold. Because it is an individual sport that incorporates so many styles among its players that what an individual prefers to watch will always make them lean in one direction or another on the player who masters the game.

Because, when the argument simply boils down to what’s on paper or what’s tangible, there’s always less reason not to anoint Novak Djokovic the best of all time. Djoker reunited for his second French Open today, his 19th Grand Slam overall, leaving him one behind Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer. He beat Nadal along the way at Roland Garros, his second win over him at that stage. The field has one. He has a winning record against both. He has won each Grand Slam at least twice, something the other two can’t say. He has a real shot at being the first to pick up the Grand Slam calendar, as he is the defending champion at Wimbledon and has won three times in New York. Assuming he doesn’t understand he himself flashed back, he will also be the favorite.

Djokovic also had to go into deeper waters to win this tournament than ever before, somehow escaping the clutches of Hydra Nadal in semis in more than three hours (including in the third set which some will tell you was the best tennis game ever played) and then turned from two sets to none in the final against Stefanos Tsitsipas in more than four. He hadn’t done it before, and no one had ever really broken Nadal to the French like Djokovic did. The last time Djokovic came to Nadal in Paris, Nadal had physical problems, so it wasn’t a surprise then. This time around, Nadal was trying to be almost as autopilot as he was last year when he didn’t leave a set. As Djokovic said, beating Nadal to the French is likely the hardest task in the sport. It’s the biggest “home” advantage. It’s as if the islanders not only had their home base rugged, but they could also have the ice surface tilted or rotated in ways to take advantage of them.

Once Djokovic went to the top in that third set, where each player redefined the term (shooting), Nadal seemed to be beaten in a way he never did. His body began to sag, he looked tired, and most of all he seemed resigned. This is not something that happens to a player who plays every point as if he were the last. Nadal hit the star button fist, missed it, and then was forced off.

In the end, this effort seemed to have taken too much from Djokovic in the first two sets. Tsitsipas, himself in a four-hour close-up, was very, very vicious, picking up the right ones and serving wherever he wanted and leaving his hands on a hand they couldn’t help but think of Federer in his pomp. He brutalized an apparently spent Djokovic in the second set 6-2.

But the thing about Djokovic, apart from his other worldly form levels, is that his game doesn’t need so much to correct him when he comes out. When Federer starts spraying the recoils, he feels like he could never get it back and that the level of accuracy can be a needle in a haystack to transfer. Nadal usually breaks physically when he loses, and this only resolves itself with rest.

Djokovic’s game is just a clean and efficient shot, so he just needs to fit the dial into his sites a click or two instead of engaging in a massive overhaul. The tide turned in the fourth game of the third set, an 11-minute pull that saw Tsitsipas fight four break points before succumbing to the fifth.

And maybe that’s one of the only big reasons why Djokovic’s most ardent fans choose him over Federer or Nadal. While Federer stands for elegance and Nadal barely controls fury, the adjective he defines for Djokovic is obstinacy. It relies solely on opponents. There are no defining blows, even if it is more than capable of them as the semifinal presented. It’s just the repeated ground game of back and forth hits so deeply so consistent and making your opponents bend like tin leaves. No one can live under that constant drone and a burst of pressure from every ball that lands near their ankles, pushing them somewhere near the concession stand when the point is over. And the longer a match is, the more likely Djokovic is to win. He drags them all into deep water, and in practice leaves them alone and watches them drown.

Djokovic found his second serve, he wasn’t broken in the third, fourth or fifth set, and even for a four-hour, five-set match, his victory seemed … routine. He just passed orderly at the end, as he always seems to do with Djokovic. He leaned back and leaned on Tsitsipas until the Greek stepped back and walked away and then fell.

So it has to be aesthetic. Djokovic is without a doubt galassu-brained. He has a much more interesting background than Federer or Nadal, emerging from modest means in a war-torn country. However, sympathy for Serbs still seems to be lacking. Back in the day he exhibited one sense of humor that neither of the other two had it, but they really just put it in trouble in the decidedly tired world of tennis.

It can be said in the way that he openly asks for crowd support either during or after the games that matter to him. What he recognizes generates more appreciation and respect than direct love and adulation.

Maybe the day will come when he is just happy to have all the successes and victories. Starting to look like he will have more than anyone else.

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