PARIS: Whenever Novak Djokovic retreated to his chair, he buried his face in his towel. He had taken a tumble. He was down by two sets. And across the court, a 22-year-old from Athens was starting to look like the Greek god of clay.
But if there’s one tennis situation that perhaps no player in history has handled better than Djokovic, it’s needing five sets to win. Trusting his endurance, the best defensive player the game has ever seen clawed his way back into Sunday’s French Open final against Stefanos Tsitsipas—and then simply overwhelmed him.
With a 6-7(6), 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 victory, Djokovic claimed his 19th major title and his second of the year. He is now chasing the first calendar-year Grand Slam in men’s tennis since Rod Laver pulled it off in 1969.
Djokovic also sits just one major behind the all-time men’s record of 20, currently held by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. The way things stand, he appears better positioned to add to his haul than either of his closest rivals. Federer, 39, pulled out of the French Open after the third round to nurse a knee that has been operated on twice in the past 18 months. Nadal, meanwhile, looked short of his usual dominant self here on clay and has won only one major on any other surface in the past three years.
Djokovic isn’t shy about his desire to be considered his sport’s greatest of all time. That hunt, he says freely, is what keeps him getting out of bed to train every day at age 34. The result of that work is never more obvious than in the five-setters that have become his signature. Entering Sunday’s match, his career record in contests that go the full distance was a staggering 34-10, according to TennisAbstract.
The remarkable thing is that this final wasn’t even Djokovic’s first comeback from two sets down in this tournament. He had previously turned the tide to win in five against Lorenzo Musetti, flashing his otherworldly combination of fitness and mental strength. He even had the audacity that day to say he appreciated losing the first two sets, because the tension put some sharpness back in his game.
“After I lost the second set and went out to change and came back on the court, I just felt different,” Djokovic said after beating Musetti. “I was a different player.”
Sunday brought a stiffer challenge. No one had won more Tour-level matches this year than Tsitsipas, a former junior no. 1 who cracked the men’s top 10 at the age of 20.