Rafael Nadal has lost at the French Open three times–to Robin Soderling (2009), and twice to Novak Djokovic (2015 and 2021). On both previous occasions, Nadal’s conqueror went on to lose in the final. If Djokovic wanted to avoid repeating history, he would need to defeat Stefanos Tsitsipas in today’s final. Tsitsipas is ranked #5 in the world, and the Greek is definitely talented, but generally not quite considered the same caliber as Djokovic. The 22-year-old Greek had defeated Djokovic twice before, though never on clay. He had also defeated Nadal on clay, back in Madrid in 2019, and Roger Federer at the 2019 Australian Open. Still, beating one of those three men in a Grand Slam final is different than doing it any other time. Could the Greek pull it off?
Stefanos Tsitsipas vs Novak Djokovic
The match began, as all Grand Slam finals do, with questions about each player’s readiness. Tsitsipas won a five-set match in his semifinal, but he seemed relatively fresh even at the end of it. Djokovic, meanwhile, came through his semifinal in a brutal, grueling, all-time classic against Nadal. But the Serbian has never showed any endurance issues since he revamped his career in 2011. So while there were questions, yes, we also felt like we probably knew the answers. Both men should be ready, and we were in for a high-caliber clash.
The match began as any could have expected. Djokovic was playing great defense, as always, and earned himself a break point opportunity in the very first game. Tsitsipas saved it, and when Djokovic earned another chance, the Greek quickly closed out the game with three consecutive aces. From there, the match settled in, and each man found a rhythm on serve.
The match continued on a good pace, with each man serving well. A bad bounce at 30-30 while serving at 4-5 meant that Djokovic had to fight off a break point, which he did in a defensive 26-shot rally. Then, as he so often does after opponents fail to take opportunities, Djokovic pounced. The Serb was his usual self, playing strong defense and returning deep. He earned a break point and didn’t miss. With a break and serving for the first set at 6-5, the match had reached its turning point. Just not in a way that anyone expected.
Tsitsipas Seizes Control
Instead of successfully serving out the first set, Djokovic struggled mightily. The sun seemed to bother his ball toss, and he quickly fell behind 0-40. After saving one break point, Djokovic couldn’t control a heavy shot from Tsitsipas, and we were heading to a tiebreak.
Djokovic’s struggles on that side of the net continued in the tiebreak, and Tsitsipas jumped out to a 4-0 lead on the back of some poor play from the Serbian. The World #1 fought back, leveled the tiebreak at 5-5, and had a set point (on Tsitsipas’ serve) at 6-5. In what would be the trend of the match, the Greek always served well when in trouble. He took his two points, and an aggressive service return eventually led to a Djokovic error, giving Tsitsipas an 8-6 tiebreak win.
Djokovic’s poor run of play continued into the second set, where he was immediately broken. The Greek was still strong on serve, and he picked up another break when Djokovic served a poor game late in the set. The Greek did not face a break point all set–in fact, he only faced deuce on his own serve once–and quickly took the set 6-2. Stefanos Tsitsipas was now one set away from a first French Open title.
Djokovic Fights Back
Though he seemed to be far from his best mentally, and potentially physically as well, Djokovic is still the best player in the world for a reason. He did not fold or fade away. After a break to change his outfit and perhaps mentally regroup, Djokovic held serve twice easily to open the set. In the marathon fourth game, Tsitsipas fought off break point after break point with big serves and aggressive play. However, on the fifth break point chance, Tsitsipas sent a backhand wide and Djokovic led in the third set. Some tight games followed, but Djokovic held his serve each time and took the set 6-3.
This time, it was Tsitsipas’ turn to take a break and regroup. He used his bathroom break, changed his shirt, and met with the trainer. Whatever the trainer met him for, it did not seem to bother him on the court. Even so, some good returns by Djokovic led to Tsitsipas overcooking his groundstrokes, and Djokovic quickly broke to open the fourth set. The World #1 earned a second break in another marathon game two games later, and the comeback was on in full force.
When the Serbian won the first two points of the fifth set (on Tsitsipas’ serve), it looked like Djokovic might run away with this set like the last two. However, some big and smart hitting pulled the Greek back in. Tsitsipas saved a break point, then held his serve. He could not do the same in the next game, though, as more solid play from Djokovic led to another tough service game.
After that, Tsitsipas just seemed gassed. He had no further answers for the Djokovic defense, and the Serbian was able to control the rallies. Also, as the set went on, the Djokovic serve got stronger and stronger. Tsitsipas had no way to even get into the service games. His only chance would be if Djokovic dropped his level, but it wasn’t looking likely.
The Greek just could do no further damage. A rough service game–that included a Djokovic lob that painted the sideline–almost gave Djokovic a second break that would have effectively ended the match, but Tsitsipas saved two break points and held after a few Djokovic shots sailed long. Djokovic looked a little nervous in his serves the following game, but the groundstrokes were as impenetrable as ever.
After a tight hold by Tsitsipas, the World #1 would have to test his nerves one last time and serve it out. The serve was not as big as earlier in the set, but the baseline game was just as solid. A poor volley gave Tsitsipas one point, and a long backhand brought it to 30-30, but every other error from the baseline came from the Greek. For a match that lacked some intensity for the last few sets, the final game more than made up for it. Tsitsipas forced deuce with an amazing backhand winner, but the serve never broke, and Djokovic took the match 6-7(6) 2-6 6-3 6-2 6-4.
Djokovic, with his 19th Grand Slam title, now trails Nadal and Roger Federer by just one in the all-time record books. He will likely tie–or possibly even surpass–that mark by the end of this year. He has already taken Federer’s record for weeks as World #1.
Possibly even more importantly, Djokovic is now the first man in the Open Era to win every single Grand Slam tournament twice. He joins Rod Laver and Roger Emerson as the only men to ever accomplish this feat. Djokovic adds to the history books even more every time he plays. With his comeback fourth round win over Lorenzo Musetti, Djokovic is also the first player in the Open Era to win a Major title while twice coming back from two sets down.
In the 2000s, Roger Federer rewrote the tennis record books while Rafael Nadal chased him. Now, though, Novak Djokovic is swallowing them all whole.
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