Djokovic Digs Deep, Wins Second Roland-Garros Title

Novak Djokovic (photo: Nicolas Gouhier/FFT)

PARIS/WASHINGTON, June 13, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Following his brilliant four-set victory over 13-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal two days earlier, Novak Djokovic had a chance to win his 19th Grand Slam singles title in the men’s championship of Roland-Garros Sunday.

In the 17th straight French Open final featuring one of the Big Three of men’s tennis – Djokovic, Nadal and Roger Federer – the World No. 1 and top seed gave everyone a good scare after Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece, his opponent who was appearing in his first major final, won the first two sets in convincing fashion.

While Nadal and Federer are currently tied for the career men’s titles lead at 20, Djokovic has been closing in on his rivals and, arguably, his game is best suited for all surfaces – hard courts, clay and grass. Against the No. 5 seed Tsitsipas, the Serbian’s never-say-die attitude served him well – and so did his experience, too.

After four hours and 11 minutes – and before a loud, enthusiastic crowd of 5,000 fan on Court Philippe-Chatrier – Djokovic won the 2021 French Open men’s title, 6-7 (6), 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4, for his 19th career major title triumph. The win improved Djokovic’s career French Open win-loss record to 81-15 (second-best all-time) and it was his 27th victory this year in 30 outings.

For the first time in his career, Djokovic came back from 0-2 down in a Grand Slam final to win. His title victory – his second at Roland-Garros to go with his first one five years ago – also made him the first man in the Open Era and third men’s player in history to win each of the majors twice. He received the Coupe des Mousquetaires trophy from Hall of Fame great Bjorn Borg during an on-court ceremony.

Sunday’s championship match had dramatic tension from the start, as displayed by a 14-point opening game, in which Tsitsipas hit three aces and double-faulted the opening point of the match. The two competitors looked for any competitive edge they could find. On serve at 5-4, Djokovic saved a set point in vintage fashion – with grit – thanks to a 26-shot rally that went in his favor, in which he refused to yield anything to his opponent or to miss. His sharp, backhand angle resulted in a backhand chip error by Tsitsipas. Then, following consecutive service breaks, in which the Chatrier fans came alive, a tie break decided the opening set.

While Djokovic gained a set point at 6-5 in the tie break, Tsitsipas saved it with a brilliant forehand winner off the serve. He went on to win the 72-minute set 8-6, garnering the final two points on errors by Djokovic. It was an opening set filled with duress for both players but just one point separated the two finalists.

Next, the second set saw a big energy dip from Djokovic as he was broken in his very first service game. Tsitsipas capitalized on this and, coupled with another break, went ahead 5-2. He served out the 35-minute second set with his eighth ace on set point to go up two sets to none. All of this seemed pretty remarkable considering Tsitipas lost his first 13 return points of the match.

The youthful, 22-year-old Tsitsipas arguably played great tennis during the first two sets, while Djokovic looked and played like a 34-year-old man who, figuratively speaking, climbed his own Mount Everest two days ago in beating Nadal.

As it happened, Djokovic rallied in the third set by breaking Tsitsipas on his third try in the fourth game for a 3-1 advantage following an 18-point epic game. He consolidated the break, then later held at 30 for a 5-2 lead. Djokovic served out the set to win 6-3 as the match reached the two hour and 32-minute mark.

After Tsitsipas received treatment on his lower back at the end of the third set, he was immediately broken to start the fourth. Since the end of the second set, there had been a tremendous momentum swing favoring Djokovic as continued to dig in deep for the long run. He went up a double-break lead, capping a 16-point fourth game by winning a 10-shot rally with a deft backhand drop shot. Then, Djokovic consolidated the second break with a love hold for 4-0. The damage had been done and Djokovic went on to serve out the set, winning 6-2 on a backhand down-the-line winner.

Onward to a fifth set the combatants went at the French Open for the first time since 2004, after three hours and 13 minutes of drama, thrills and excitement. A look at career five-set records: Tsitsipas 5-4, Djokovic 34-10. After Tsitsipas saved a break point and held serve in a 10-point opening game, he was broken in his next service game, thanks to a suffocating return game by the Serbian. Djokovic seized the opportunity to hold at love for a commanding 3-1 lead, just three games shy of title glory.

At 4-2, Tsitsipas saved two break points to hold. However, Djokovic counted with an easy love hold and made Tsitsipas work hard to hold his own serve as the match eclipsed the four-hour mark. Then, serving for the championship, Djokovic won on his second championship point after hitting a cross-court forehand winner that finished a five-shot rally.

Djokovic finished with five aces, hit 56 winners to 41 unforced errors, won 78 percent (71 of 91) of his fist-serve points, and converted five of 16 break points against Tsitsipas. Meanwhile, Tsitsipas tallied 14 aces, hit 61 winners and committed 41 unforced errors. He broke Djokovic three times in eight chances, but it was not enough. Djokovic outpointed his opponent 164-147.

En route to the winning his 19th major title, Djokovic beat Tennys Sandgren, Pablo Cuevas, Ricardas Berankis, Lorenzo Musetti, No. 9 seed Matteo Berrettini, No. 3 seed Nadal and, finally, Tsitsipas.

During his post-match press conference, Tsitsipas was asked the difference in facing Djokovic in a best-of-5 versus a best-of-3. He said: “Well, it’s different. It’s all about endurance. If you can keep up with the endurance, keep your level there for longer periods of time, then of course that’s what is needed in a Grand Slam.

“I played two good sets. I wouldn’t call them incredible. I just played really well. It wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough. That’s a Grand Slam for you. It’s the way it is.”

Djokovic’s second Grand Slam title of the year, following his February success in winning the Australian Open, keeps his hopes of a calendar Grand Slam alive with the Wimbledon Championships and US Open remaining on this year’s schedule. The Wimbledon Championships begin in two weeks.

After playing arguably the greatest clay-court match of his life in beating Nadal, Djokovic was asked by Hall of Famer John McEnroe in an interview for NBC Sports broadcast in the U.S. how he could bounce back and, then, come back physically and mentally from being down two sets to none against Tsitsipas.

Djokovic smiled at the question, then responded: “Probably, it was the best 40 hours I’ve ever had, you know, winning against Rafa – ending at midnight a few nights ago – then coming back today in completely different conditions, playing in the middle of the day. It was quite windy, warm. Against Rafa, it was nice, a lower bounce, different conditions. I didn’t hit or practice yesterday because I felt like it was more important for me to recover, rejuvenate and gather all the possible energy, mentally and physically, to come out here today and battle.

“I knew it was going to be a big battle, especially after losing the first set. I had my chances, but [Stefanos] was a better player in clutch moments. The second set wasn’t good at all for my side. My energy dropped; I got a bit tired. After the second set, I went out and tried to regroup and find what it takes. These are the kinds of moments and kinds of matches that where the work pays off. All the work you do day in and day out to perfect your game and to try to understand the nuances of what you can improve, both on and off the court. Everything you’re doing is affecting you as a whole, as a person and a player.

“I knew coming in today, he was going to try his best. He didn’t have much to lose, playing in his first Grand Slam final. I just wanted to stay patient and hope I could stick there with him in the third set. I managed to make an early break in the third, and I actually liked my chances from then onward. I felt like he was starting to overthink a little bit. I probably got into his head and started swing more freely. After that, there was no looking back.”

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