Since his emergence at the top level of professional tennis 18 years ago, Novak Djokovic has used the dizzying bar set by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal before him as inspiration to push himself to his limits, never doubting that he would one day rise above it.
What once seemed impossible eventually became inevitable. On Sunday, Djokovic finally surpassed his great rivals in the most significant category of all as he defeated Casper Ruud 7-6 (1), 6-3, 7-5 to clinch his 23rd grand slam title, breaking his tie of 22 with Nadal.
This historic victory means that Djokovic is now the men’s sole grand slam record holder, alongside countless other records. After years of being blocked by Nadal, the greatest claycourter of all time, at the French Open, Djokovic also now has three titles in Paris and he is the first man to win each grand slam tournament three times. He will also return to No 1 for a record-extending 388th week as the best player in the world.
“Every single player dreams of being on this stage and winning the trophy at least once in their career. I’m beyond fortunate in my life to win 23 times, it’s an incredible feeling,” Djokovic said during his on-court speech.
While he still covers the court with more flexibility and ease than most athletes at their physical peak, these achievements at his age have only added another layer to his greatness. Djokovic is now the oldest Roland Garros singles champion in history at 36 years and 20 days. He has also won the last three grand slam tournaments he has contested – he did not travel to the US Open last year due to the United States banning unvaccinated visitors – compiling a 21‑match grand slam winning run.
Few people gave Ruud, the fourth seed, much of a realistic chance against the third seed Djokovic, but after contesting the French and US Open finals last season against Nadal and Carlos Alcaraz, Ruud knew what level it would take for him to match Djokovic in a grand slam final.
Ruud started the match vaporising his forehand as he took an early break, while Djokovic started the match poorly. He played passively while he sprayed forehands and missed overheads. The benefit of being Djokovic, though, is that he always has options. He dug in and he relied on his legs as he soaked up a series of stinging Ruud forehands before retrieving the early break.
Still, the Norwegian kept his head up. The decisive moment of the match came while he led 5-4 with Djokovic serving. Ruud opened the game with some inspirational play, including a successful tweener lob to lead 0-30. But at 5-4, 30-30, Ruud gifted a forehand error on an easy second serve return. Sensing Ruud’s tension, Djokovic pounced. He held serve, he forced a tiebreak and then he picked Ruud’s weaker backhand apart to take the set. “He just steps up,” Ruud said. “Either he plays ridiculous defence or he plays beautiful winners. Just doesn’t do any mistakes. He either lets you go for too much or he plays a beautiful winner.”
By the second set, the Serb’s nerves had evaporated. He dictated from inside the baseline, pulverising his forehand, and he continued to methodically break down Ruud’s backhand as he neutralised his serve. Djokovic controlled the contest until the end, patiently waiting for his moment to clinch the decisive break late in the third set before closing out one of the greatest successes of his career. After the final point, he collapsed to the ground before climbing up to his player box.
In recent years, Djokovic has repeatedly explained that his priorities have changed after so many years of success at all levels. Grand slam tournaments are what motivate him now. The past two weeks have been a comprehensive reflection of that approach. He spent much of the clay court season in poor shape, struggling with form and an elbow injury that forced him to withdraw from the Madrid Open. But with a historic grand slam title on the line he has met every challenge.
“He has this software in his head that he can switch when a grand slam comes,” said Goran Ivanisevic, Djokovic’s coach. “Grand slam is a different sport comparing to other tournaments. He switch his software. The day we arrived here, he was better, he was more motivated, he was more hungry.”
During his speech, Djokovic noted that since he was a young child his goals were always to win Wimbledon and be No 1 in the world. He has surpassed those goals more than 10 times over. While the No 1 ranking and grand slam titles used to be the ultimate goal for all aspiring players, this fading, unforgettable era of greatness with Djokovic, Serena Williams, Nadal and Federer has completely changed how people view success in the sport.
When young players state their goals these days, they often want to be the best of all time. That bar, 23 grand slam titles, is now in the stratosphere.