About a year ago, Novak Djokovic’s professional mission appeared to be turning himself into a punchline.
The early days of the pandemic created a vacuum of celebrity news. Djokovic began filling it with odd takes about his own brand of voodoo medicine. He barnstormed an off-the-books mini-tournament that turned into a pan-European plague vector. He came out as vaccine-hesitant before that was a term.
Shorn of tennis, it was getting hard to take Djokovic seriously.
But real pros understand that the public will forgive you for anything, as long as you win.
Djokovic won the French Open on Sunday. It was his 19th Grand Slam, which sounds a bit boring. But this one was his War and Peace. This was Djokovic working on a grand scale.
On Friday night, he played what was likely the greatest semi-final match in tennis history against Rafael Nadal. By Sunday afternoon, he looked like a man in need of rest. Djokovic came out so flat in the final against Stefanos Tsitsipas he was two-dimensional. His forehands had no pop. His posture sagged. He was dragging himself around the court, waving at gettable balls.
Even his baseball cap looked too small, as though he’d forgotten his own and had to borrow someone else’s.
Tsitsipas was quickly up two sets to none. Time to start writing the breaking-news alerts. This was going to be a lot bigger than the 22-year-old Greek winning his first major. This was shaping up as a stake in the heart of the Big Four era.
“Is this a moment or is this a movement?” NBC analyst Mary Carillo said, pulling double-duty as a headline writer.
But then one of those small shifts that turn tennis matches inside-out. In the fourth game of the third set, Tsitsipas was up 40-15 on his own serve. Easy peasy.
It was that moment that Djokovic, now two hours late, decided to show up. Five break opportunities later, the last one taken, and that was it.
The match was still hours from finishing, but you could see that it was headed inexorably in just one direction.
Still, Tsitsipas tried all the tricks. He took a medical timeout before the start of the fourth set. That didn’t work. He yelled at himself and at his box. That didn’t work. He started trashing his racquets. That never worked for John McEnroe and it doesn’t work now.
If there’s any solace for him, it’s that there’s nothing he could have done. Once Djokovic’s onboard tennis CPU has been switched on, he becomes a backboard with arms.
Once it was done – 6-7 (8-6), 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 – the Serb didn’t bother celebrating much. Tsitsipas retreated to his chair and covered his head with a towel.
There was the usual interminable postfinal “celebration” that blights all tennis tournaments. Why was Djokovic interviewed not once, not twice, but three times? Why were his French answers to French questions asked in France translated into English? Why does Tsitsipas have to speak? Particularly on this Sunday, it’s cruel and unusual.
By the end of it, Djokovic had slipped into his Jerry-Lewis-in-Hour-42-of-the-Telethon routine (“I’d like to say hello to all the brothers and sisters in Greece …”) and Tsitsipas looked like he was considering making a break for it through the stands.
But no amount of schmaltz can obscure what was achieved here.
Djokovic was already the best tennis player in the world. Now you’d have to concede that he is probably the best professional athlete, full stop.
At 34, he trails Nadal and Roger Federer by one Grand Slam – 19 to 20. Based on current form, he’ll have that taken care of by September.
When people talk about exactly what it is that makes Djokovic special, they tend to focus on his physical preparation. He only eats fruit that has fallen off trees, rather than been picked (or something like that). His idea of an afternoon off is lying in a sub-zero hyperbaric chamber. He does not appear to sweat, regardless of the temperature.
But whenever the moment comes to write his professional obit, it’s Djokovic’s will that should get the attention.
He is one of those rare individuals whose self-belief is total and unwavering. Every player experiences doubt, but you would be hard pressed to think of a single other who feels it less than Djokovic.
He also has the power to weaponize this self-belief by projecting it outward. Djokovic didn’t beat Tsitsipas on Sunday with his racquet. He did it with his mind. He convinced the better player on the day, one who was decisively in the lead, that he was going to lose.
Even after the match had ended, Djokovic was still getting inside Tsitsipas’s head. He begged off answering a question in French so that he could speak directly to his opponent in English.
“I can relate to what you’re going through …” Djokovic said.
Can he really? Because it’s pretty close to impossible to imagine Djokovic spitting the bit after taking a two-sets-to-none lead at a Grand Slam championship. Only Federer (11) has lost more major finals than Djokovic (10). But in all those losses, Djokovic never once beat himself.
Tsitsipas now has. One supposes Sunday’s collapse could be the making of him. But just as often, it goes the other way.
Andy Roddick lost a similar sort of final to Federer at Wimbledon in 2009. Though Roddick was only 26 at the time, that was essentially the end of his career. That disappointment sank him.
So you could say that on Sunday, Djokovic won twice – cementing his own legend, while also putting an extreme frightener on a player he is likely to see at this stage again some day soon.
This French Open felt like the beginning of a change in tennis people have spent years talking about. Federer and Serena Williams fell back just a little more to the pack. Nadal was vulnerable in a place he once owned. Younger players such as Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev took more baby steps forward.
But astride it all, Djokovic now stands unchallenged. The only question going forward is whether he wants to end up one of the best in history, or all alone on top of that mountain. Watching Djokovic on Sunday, you got the feeling that for this guy, that isn’t a challenge. It’s a choice.