Last year, I wrote an article titled “The Woman in the Red Dress”, where I discussed the allure and uniqueness of Roland Garros, particularly her choice of champions. To read that article, just click on the link above.
In the article, I talked about a certain element of courageousness, a Go For It (GFI) factor that Roland Garros relishes more than any atom of exquisite talent or ounce of greatness, her victors bring to her courts. After all, not all of her victors have been great and not all of them have been uber-talented either. They’ve just been a little less afraid of the moment, than the opponent across the net. I remember saying that Djokovic needed to realize this, the next time he stepped onto the court, and he did. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you our 2016 French Open Champion, Novak Djokovic.
As this year’s edition of Roland Garros unfolded, it was clear to see that the tennis gods were finally looking at the great Serb with more favorable eyes than they perhaps did in the past. For starters, the build up to this year’s French Open was less tasking on Djokovic. The three clay masters tournaments – Monte Carlo, Madrid, and Rome had been shared between Rafa, Novak and Andy Murray. All of a sudden, the tournament had a trifecta of favorites. The fact that Murray was one of those favorites and Federer was not, made for a rich story-line and the tennis tabloids wasted no time in milking it for its worth. All of this meant that Novak, despite being the ultra dominant world #1, despite coming into the French open on the back of three straight major title wins, and despite being last year’s finalist, managed to fly under the radar. His quest for that elusive and Grand Slam resume completing French Open title, somehow took a backdrop to Nadal’s quest for an unprecedented tenth title in Paris, Murray’s quest for a first, and even debates about whether or not Federer should skip the French Open.
Things only got better from there for Novak. Here’s how things actually played out over the course of the tournament. Roger Federer DID choose to skip the French. He pulled out before the tournament’s draw was even released, citing a recurring back injury he needed to tend to. Rafael Nadal entered the tournament and actually looked good through his first two rounds of competition. Then he too bowed out, his conqueror being a wrist injury he could no longer manage. This was circa 2009, with Roger Federer. Novak’s two biggest rivals had been taken out for him. This in no way diminishes the remaining threats that were Thiem, Murray and Wawrinka. It’s just that as dangerous as they can be, they aren’t able to consistently summon the level of play needed to hurt Djokovic. Federer and Nadal on the other hand, can. To make matters even better, Murray took out Wawrinka and this time, Novak dispatched Thiem – his semi-final opponent – with considerable aplomb, reserving his energy for a much anticipated final against Murray.
This final was memorable to me simply for one reason. GFI. Both Murray and Djokovic went for it. Murray in the first set, Djokovic in the final three. It was and perhaps understandable that Novak was tentative, bursting out of the gates. Here was a man who had been here many times before and had fallen just short of the finish line on each occasion. Here was a surface that had brought him so much joy, so much promise and yet so much pain. Once again, Novak stared at the great chasm between greatness and immortality. For a while there, it looked like he would shrivel before the challenge as he had unfortunately done before. Novak’s calibration deserted him. He sprayed balls long, while Murray dropped heavily spun shots splat on the baseline. He missed the sidelines with his shots, while Murray painted them with more than a few of his own. His attempt to get to one more ball, ended in lazily floated shots to the center of the net. Murray’s attempts elicited one more unforced error from the Serbian. It was the 2012 U.S open all over again. Murray is a master of pulling his opponent’s down, while slowly but surely, elevating his own game. He reigned Djokovic in throughout the first set, ultimately taking it. Somehow, it would be his undoing.
Maybe it was the looming pain of having the French Open, snatched from his grasp again. Perhaps it was the apparent indignity – for him – of losing to another first time French Open finalist, even if that finalist was Murray. Or maybe it was a realization that at 29 years of age, his window was closing even if he is currently at the peak of his powers. Whatever it was, Novak kicked into gear in set two. What followed was a display of aggressive defensive tennis, the likes of which even the great Nadal would have been impressed with. Novak locked in on his nerves and in turn they seized control of his muscles. What’s more, even his mind was completely dialed in. What they produced in tandem, was a sight to behold. This was the Novak that just didn’t quite show up in previous finals. This was the Novak that wasn’t afraid to go for the daring drop shot, or the running cross court forehand. This was the Novak that was feeling so spry as to execute a leaping two handed backhand – flamboyant by his standards – towards the tail end of the match. This was the Novak the woman in the red dress had been waiting for. When he showed up, her courts gravitated to him. They added a certain immeasurable amount of zip to his ground strokes and deadened his drop shots so effectively that a man possessing Murray’s impressive movement, could not reach them in time.
Roland Garros was finally ready to accept Novak Djokovic as her champion. As always, she couldn’t have presented herself to a great at a more convenient time, for them. In 2009, Federer won Roland Garros to tie Pete Sampras at 14 majors apiece. He would go on to surpass him in the next Grand Slam, Wimbledon. Djokovic has finally crossed the great divide between tennis greatness and immortality. This summer, riding that wave of confidence, he has a chance to add a golden finish to it, at the Olympics in Rio. He’ll be up to the challenge and why wouldn’t he? He finally got his woman.