By Samuel Petrequin
Novak Djokovic has won his second French Open championship and his 19th Grand Slam title by rallying past Stefanos Tsitsipas in a seesaw final at Roland Garros.
Talented and tenacious as they come, Djokovic was not about to concede a thing after dropping the first two sets of the French Open final against his younger, fresher foe.
Djokovic looked diminished and depleted at the outset on Sunday. By the end, he was at his imperious best.
Aided by flawless serving down the stretch, the top-seeded Djokovic came all the way back to beat Tsitsipas 6-7 (6), 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 for his second championship at Roland Garros and 19th Grand Slam title overall.
“I don’t want to stop there,” said Djokovic, who spread his arms, then tapped his chest and crouched to touch the red clay at Court Philippe Chatrier after ending the match with a leaping volley.
As things stand, Djokovic is just one major trophy away from tying the men’s record of 20 career Grand Slams shared by Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer and will get his first chance to pull even with his rivals at Wimbledon, which starts in two weeks.
Djokovic became one of only three men – alongside Rod Laver and Roy Emerson – to have won each major tournament at least twice. And now, as the reigning champion at the Australian Open and French Open, Djokovic can set his sights on another rare achievement: He is halfway to joining Laver (1962 and 1969) and Don Budge (1938) as the only men with a calendar-year Grand Slam.
The 34-year-old Djokovic eliminated 13-time French Open champion Nadal – a challenge the Serb likened to scaling Mt. Everest – in a semifinal that lasted more than four hours Friday night.
That was only Nadal’s third career loss in 108 matches at the clay-court major tournament.
Djokovic had also defeated Nadal in the 2015 quarterfinals in Paris before losing that year’s final, and it appeared as if the same fate was waiting Sunday.
That’s because Djokovic looked drained early. The 22-year-old Tsitsipas had the upper hand for two sets.
“It was not easy for me,” Djokovic said, “both physically and mentally.”
Eventually, though, he got his best-in-the-game returning on track and, remarkably, did not face even one break point over the last three sets.
That enabled Djokovic to complete his sixth career comeback from two sets down – and second of the past week.
The International Tennis Federation said Djokovic – who trailed 19-year-old Lorenzo Musetti two sets to none in the fourth round – is the first man in the professional era to win a Grand Slam tournament after twice facing a 2-0 deficit in sets.
“Suddenly just felt cold and out of it,” Tsitsipas said. “It was difficult to readjust. I felt like I kind of lost my game a little bit. I really wish I could understand why things like this happened and evolved.”
Experience could have been a factor, too.
This was the first major final for Tsitsipas and the 29th for Djokovic, who also won the French Open in 2016, to go with nine titles at the Australian Open, five at Wimbledon and three at the U.S. Open.
Of just as much, if not more, significance to the ultimate outcome: Djokovic is 35-10 in five-setters – including a men’s-record 32 wins at majors – while Tsitsipas is 5-5.
“What I learned today is that no matter what, in order for the match to be finished, you have to win three sets and not two,” said Tsitsipas, who was trying to become the first Greek to win a major singles title. “Two sets doesn’t really mean anything.”
He needed just about 100 minutes to grab his big lead on a sunny, breezy afternoon with the temperature approaching 80 degrees Fahrenheit (over 25 degrees Celsius) and attendance limited to 5,000, about a third of the stadium capacity, because of Covid-19 restrictions.
The footing on clay can be tricky, and both men took first-set tumbles.
Djokovic’s left him prone on the sideline after a head-first fall near a net post. Tsitsipas slipped by the baseline, smearing his white shirt and purple shorts with the rust-colored surface.
While Djokovic switched tops soon after his spill, Tsitsipas kept his dirty clothes on – as if he viewed the mess as a badge of honor – until after losing the third set, when he requested a visit from a trainer to help him with a tight hip.
By then, the momentum had changed. And Tsitsipas never could recover, mainly because he never made any headway in Djokovic’s service games.
The first set was tight as can be: Tsitsipas won 43 points, Djokovic 42.
Seeming surprisingly shaken, Djokovic began the second set with a double-fault and a swinging forehand volley that landed way long, then got broken with a wild forehand miss.
Tsitsipas broke again to lead 5-2 in that set, and Djokovic pressed a white towel against his face at the ensuing changeover.
Trying to cool off? Perhaps. Trying to reset himself? Probably.
After the second set, Djokovic headed off for one of each player’s two allotted locker room breaks.
The match was never quite the same; Tsitsipas thought Djokovic’s anticipation and movement improved.
“I kind of felt like he could read my game a bit better, suddenly,” Tstitsipas said. “Good for him.”
A supreme returner and imposer of his will, Djokovic accrued early breaks of serve in each of the third, fourth and fifth sets.
Shadows were spreading across the court as the sun descended in the early evening and, though Djokovic complained to chair umpire Aurélie Tourte that the artificial lights were switched on, he shined when it mattered the most.
This was another match that lasted more than four hours, and Djokovic was up to the task again.
“The atmosphere was amazing against Rafa and today against Stefanos,” Djokovic said. “I will definitely remember these last 48 hours for the rest of my life.”