French Open 2021: Djokovic makes more history with Tsitsipas victory for second Paris title

World No1 is first man in Open era to win two career Grand Slams, and just one short of Federer/Nadal 20 tally

Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic (Photo: Corinne Dubreuil for Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters)

There has been a consensus in men’s tennis almost since the teenage Rafael Nadal began his journey from his first French Open title to a remarkable 13 victories on Philipp-Chatrier.

When a man has lost only two matches from 107, to establish perhaps the most dominant record by any player at any tournament, it is little wonder that the world No1 Novak Djokovic described his epic victory over the Spaniard in this year’s semis as “you have to kind of climb Mount Everest to win against this guy here.”

Yet that is what he had done, becoming only the second man to beat Nadal twice on his hallowed court.

Now those ‘Everest’ words could just as easily be applied to the task that faced Djokovic’s opponent in the final. Not that the 22-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas had not achieved huge things already in this most demanding of sports. The former junior No1 was up to No5 in the senior rankings, reached two Masters finals while still a teenager, and now owned seven titles from 16 previous finals—including the ATP Finals and, only weeks ago, his first Masters title in Monte Carlo.

Even before this week, he had also reached three Major semi-finals, but at Roland Garros he took the next big step in his career with his first final. He had not done it the easy way in a tough quarter though: John Isner, Pablo Carreno Busta, No2 seed Daniil Medvedev, and in the semis a gruelling five-setter against No6 seed Alexander Zverev.

He had developed the look, voice and tennis of a man ready to lead a new generation to a famous breakthrough. But he had that Everest ahead of him.

The grit that Djokovic had demonstrated in beating Nadal after more than four hours in his semi has been writ large through his current residency at No1—held ever since before the coronavirus pandemic halted tennis February 2021, and now up to a world record tally of 324 weeks. He won his 17th and 18th Majors in Australia, and two of the three Masters that were played last year.

As for his clay credentials, Djokovic arrived in Paris as runner-up in Rome, won his home 250 in Belgrade, and had not fallen short of the quarters in Paris since 2009, winning in 2016 and finishing runner-up four times. His 80-15 tally in Paris was second only to Nadal, and his Major finals appearances was second only to Federer, 29 to 31. And should he win the French title again, he would become the first man in the Open era to win two career Grand Slams.

As if that was not enough, Djokovic held a 5-2 advantage in their previous meetings, including the semis in Roland Garros last year, and this year’s Rome quarter-final. However, both matches went the distance—as this latest and most significant meeting would do.

Tsitsipas faced the first huge rock face in the first opening game, four deuces, and saved two break points with three straight aces.

In contrast, Djokovic held to love, but then Tsitsipas established his own serving prowess with a quick hold—sealed with another ace.

Now the Greek had shaken off his nerves and was settling into the rhythm of the court and the hot conditions. The two edged towards the business end of the set, and it was Tsitsipas who worked his break chance, a set point, but Djokovic battled with him into the longest rally of the match and held. The Serb then began to ply the extreme corners of the court and drew errors from a panting Tsitsipas to get his own break point, and would serve for the set.

Now, though, Djokovic seemed to be having trouble with grit in his eyes, and made a couple of big errors to offer the break-back to the Greek: It would take a tie-break. The run of errors continued for Djokovic, going 4-0 down, but then Tsitsipas fell, was a little shaken, the Serb regrouped, and they were soon back on serve. That meant Djokovic got the first set point at 6-5.

However, a forehand winner from the Greek and they changed ends all square, and another bristling winner from Tsitsipas and he had another bite of the cherry. He forced an error from Djokovic to nab the set, 7-6(6)‚ with just one more point in the set, 43-42.

The Greek’s level continued against an unusually subdued Djokovic to break at the start of the second set, and he held for 2-0. The former champion, though, began to look more like his usual self with a love hold, and it was up to Tsitsipas to try and maintain his high playing and mental focus. Thus far, the Greek was making precious few mistakes, only 11 for 25 winners, and a love hold kept him ahead, 4-2.

Tsitispas was putting in some hard yards, chasing more than the width of the court and often into the net for a drop-shot pick-up. It earned him more break chances, back to deuce, then a wrong-footing forehand winner gave him another chance. From 5-2 up, the Greek would serve for the second set, and did so with ease, 6-2, as Djokovic appeared to give up the last game. Would he renew his intensity in the next?

A 12-minute third game proved one thing; Djokovic was not low on energy or confidence. At 2-1 up he worked five break points, and while Tsitsipas found some superb plays to save four, he could not do it on the fifth: Djokovic led, though Tsitsipas was doing all the work.

The Greek looked tight, his serve was starting to let him down, and Djokovic had his chin up and shoulders back. The Serb went on to serve out the set, 6-4.

These were worrying signs for Greek fans, especially when their man called for the trainer ahead of the fourth set. He had his lower back manipulated, but was certainly not moving at his former athletic level as he was broken in the first game. This was just what the doctor ordered for Djokovic, who was freed to play with abandon to the lines, and he broke twice before Tsitsipas got on the scoreboard.

The Serb went on to serve it out, 6-2, and looked ready to surge to the final. With the shadows edging across the court, Tsitsipas was again up against it in a long third game, broken at last for Djokovic to lead in the match for the first time, 2-1.

The clock moved to four hours as Tsitsipas served to save the match, and it was no easy matter, but he did force Djokovic to serve it out. The Serb’s pre-serve bounce rate increased to over 20 on first serve, 15 on second through long and tense minutes. Tsitsipas made it deuce, but Djokovic would not be denied. He hit one more winner, and lifted his arms to the heavens 6-4.

Djokovic has now won a record seventh Major title since turning 30, and is halfway to that near-unique achievement, a calendar Slam. For now, he can revel in something that neither of his big rivals have achieved: two complete sets of Major—and within touching distance of equalling their record 20 Majors apiece.

For a tear-stained Tsitsipas, the time will surely come, but for now he has edged to a new career-high of No4. Onwards and upwards.

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