History was made at Roland Garros on Sunday as Novak Djokovic won a record 23rd Grand Slam title, the most of any man who has ever played the sport.
Djokovic, 36, began nervously, trailing 3-0 and 4-2 in the first set, with the weight of the occasion seemingly heavy on his shoulders, his feet unusually off balance. But as so often in his career, Djokovic dug himself out of trouble and then pulled away in familiar style to win 7-6 (1), 6-3, 7-5.
As Ruud’s final forehand landed wide, Djokovic fell to the clay and lay flat on his back, soaking in the applause of the crowd. After taking the congratulations from Ruud he sat for several seconds, before going into the crowd to celebrate with his family and support team, emerging with a jacket with “23” emblazoned on it.
“It’s no coincidence that I should win my 23rd Grand Slam title here. This has been the hardest tournament for me to win throughout my career,” Djokovic said after. “I am beyond fortunate in my life to win 23 Grand Slams. It’s an incredible feeling.”
Djokovic is the oldest man to win the French Open, and his third Roland Garros crown moves him ahead of Rafael Nadal to 23 Grand Slams, level with Serena Williams and one behind the all-time leader Margaret Court, whose career spanned the amateur and professional eras. He is now halfway to the coveted calendar-year Grand Slam for the third time in his career. Oh, and Monday, he will return to the No 1 ranking on the ATP Tour.
Here’s how history was made.
Djokovic shakes off early tension
Djokovic has been talking about the prospect of breaking the men’s Grand Slam record ever since he won for the first time in Paris in 2016. On Sunday, he looked nervous in the first set, but as we have seen so many times in the Slams over the past 20 years, many players can match the likes of Djokovic, Nadal and Roger Federer over a set, or set and a half; doing it long enough to clinch victory is close to impossible.
With the roof open despite a forecast of rain, Ruud, the runner-up to Nadal last year and a man appearing in his third Slam final, had a better start. His tactic of getting the ball up high above Djokovic’s shoulders paying early dividends.
Ruud broke serve for 2-0 when Djokovic mishit a smash long, and extended his lead to 3-0 and then 4-2 as Djokovic struggled for rhythm, his footwork sluggish. Tom Brady sat next to Djokovic’s wife, Jelena, looking concerned.
But in his 34th Slam final, equaling a record set by Chris Evert, Djokovic slowly began to work his way into the match. The set turned when Ruud netted a simple smash to give him the break back for 3-4, but the outcome was still uncertain until Djokovic — who now holds the best tiebreak record in ATP Tour history — won it 7-1 to snatch the set after 81 minutes.
His serve began to click
The relief from winning the first set was palpable and had an immediate effect. Djokovic had won all four of their previous meetings, all in straight sets, and as he began to relax, his game started to flow.
His serve, in particular, really slipped into gear. Djokovic won 16 of 17 points overall to get to 1-0, 0-30 on the Ruud serve, and once he’d broken Ruud for 2-0, there was no stopping him. He dropped just five points on serve in the entire second set and as the confidence flooded through his body, he began to hit his forehand with more pace and precision. One break was enough for him to double his lead.
Ruud unable to hit back
In contrast to the first set, when Ruud was extending the rallies and running everything down, Djokovic was in complete control in sets two and three. In the rallies of 0-4 shots — which is where most points are decided — Djokovic won 70 points to the 41 of Ruud.
The 24-year-old Ruud continued to fight. He had a glimmer of hope at 4-3, 0-30 but a lucky net cord helped Djokovic hold. That was his last chance. At 5-5, Djokovic stepped up and hit three winners to break to love and made no mistake as he served out for the win after three hours, 13 minutes.
Is more history ahead for Djokovic?
As the seven-time champion, Djokovic will head to Wimbledon full of confidence again, chasing what would be the third leg of the calendar-year Grand Slam. A win there would also see him equal Federer’s men’s record of eight Wimbledon titles. Even before he beat Ruud on Sunday, he was already allowing talk of him emulating Rod Laver in 1969 as the only man to win all four Slams in the same year.
If that happens, then he will head to the US Open in the same position as 2021, where Djokovic was one match away, losing out to Daniil Medvedev in the final. As he likes to say, anything is possible.