No player has a better understanding of this aspect, and uses it to manipulate matches to their advantage, like Novak Djokovic, who left his mark of greatness in Paris on Sunday as he picked off Casper Ruud 7-6(1), 6-3, 7-5 to win a third French Open title. By doing so, he overtook Rafael Nadal with a record-breaking 23rd men’s singles Grand Slam championship.
This has been a nightmare match-up for Ruud in the past, as he has now lost each of his five matches against the Serb. But Ruud, who was blown away by Nadal in the final in Paris last year, came out swinging. He was equipped with a smart strategy – using the slow clay and his topspin-laden sledgehammer of a forehand, and making the ball bounce high off the court. It not only took the ball out of Djokovic’s strike zone, but also made him exert tremendous energy to get through the long rallies.
The Norwegian fashioned an early lead as Djokovic looked physically spent and nervy. But just as he looked to be holding on, after conserving energy towards the back end of the set, he took his average-looking level and sent it into the stratosphere.
Ruud did little wrong other than stepping into Djokovic’s den, as the set went into a tie-breaker. The Serb played six shootouts at Roland Garros this year and won each of them. As if that’s not impressive enough, in the 51 tiebreak points he played, he did not make a single unforced error.
Djokovic’s enduring legacy has been built on his singular ability to raise his game to match a peaking opponent and a high-stakes occasion. If an eight-point display of everything that makes Djokovic the greatest player of his generation was ever needed, copy and paste this tiebreaker.
From the very first point, crunching a backhand return on the slide deep into his opponent’s court, there was greater physical effort and more elite shotmaking. He slid from one side of the court to the other with aplomb, cutting angles with his groundstrokes that he was happy to work as rally shots earlier, increasing the revs of spin and speed on his forehand, and serving clutch.
Ruud had produced some of his best tennis of the fortnight on the biggest of stages for nearly 90 minutes, but left the first set empty-handed.
Knowing what to do
Djokovic retreated into lockdown mode after getting an early break in the second, happy to serve it out for a two-set lead. He used his experience and almost flawless game to get ahead of Ruud’s defence-first strategy by going on the offensive and cutting the rallies short, adding variety to his game, and rushing to the net.
Despite the plaudits his backhand rightly gets, Djokovic’s forehand, especially on clay, can be deceptively effective. His use of the western grip can add spin on the shot that he is able to place acutely deep and wide crosscourt to trap his opponent on that side and open up the rest of the court. This time, however, Djokovic used that forehand flat and aggressive for outright winners. Despite Ruud’s venomous ability on that side, Djokovic had more forehand winners (45) than Ruud (25) in the final.
But the Norwegian did not let himself fall apart. Last year, Ruud had confessed that he let the occasion get the better of him, getting tight and losing the third set 0-6. He was not going to let that happen this time around, raising his level as best he could in the third set, finding incredible depth on his groundstrokes and consistently making his first serve.
He served out a hugely important game in the third to go 5-4 up. Momentum seemed to be on his side for the first time in the match, but just like that, Djokovic raised his level again, winning 12 of the next 13 points with seven winners, to take the historic title. He had won the match in the big moments, as he had done time and time and time before.