Djokovic has a special tracky top on, the number 23 embroidered on it. It’s a bit twee, of course it is, but in fairness to the lad, he has just won his 23rd Grand Slam trophy. Not bad. He raises the trophy aloft, kisses it, and I’ve no idea how many he’ll end on. 30ish? What a preposterous possibility. Here comes the Serbian anthem.
“Another day, another record for you, another day you rewrite tennis history,” Ruud tells Djokovic. “It’s tough to explain how incredible it is and how good you are and what an inspiration you are.” Ach, Ruud,’s a real mensch, saying he’s pleased he’s the first to pass on congratulations from the dais before thanking Amelie Mauresmo, the tournament director and praising the weather. He then thanks the crowd and his team, his parents, his partner, and has an amazing tan-line from his headband. It’s been a long journey that started when he was a little boy and he hopes to make it back into another final.
Ruud comes to collect his tray, runner-up for the second year in a row. He’ll know there was nothing he could do.
Tell you what, I know they’re always good, but these have been an especially good championships. I already feel bereft without them.
Here comes the great Yannick Noah, champion 40 years ago, to present the trophy.
“Matt Dony is simply wrong, or ill-informed,” says Mick Devine. “‘But can I prove objectively by watertight metrics that he was ‘better’ than the other two? No.’ Well, yes, one can. Again — beyond tournament wins — which he will surely pass Federer on within two years — every single metric goes to Djokovic. Not a few to Rafa, a few to Roger, a few to Novak. H2H over both Fed and Rafa, advantage Djokovic. Grand Slams, after today. Weeks at No. 1 — which people seem to overlook — not close, and getting more distant starting next week. ATP Finals, overlooked again by many, yet a tournament the ATP values at 1500 points—advantage Djokovic. Masters titles? Advantage, Djokovic. I know it’s not sexy, the most pragmatic of the three winning on all counts. We’re just bonkers blessed to have lived through an era featuring these three athletes, Lebron and Steph, and Messi and Cristiano. Let’s enjoy the sunset.”
I can’t argue with any of this. I don’t think it’s close, and it’s going to get ever-more distant from here.
As the ball dropped long, Djokovic went down in instalments, lying on the clay before celebrating with his team. He is impregnable and untouchable, sharing the moment with his daughter, wife and parents; I wonder if they’re proud of him. Imagine how they feel; imagine how he feels. Every ounce of energy expended, the sacrifices and the pain, is for this moment and others like it; Djokovic returns to no1 in the world, and the calendar Grand Slam looks well within reach. He started slowly today but goodness me did he get going thereafter; Ruud played well, but not for one second did it look remotely feasible he could win. Djokovic’s serving, especially down the T, and his forehand, especially cross-court, were terrifying in their awesomeness, and he’s now won six of eight majors, his last 21 matches in majors, and every one of them thrice …. at least. I’ve never, ever, seen an athlete like him – it’s the reliability that’s most shocking, I think, able to hit with precision over and over again when under pressure or when cruising, each as baffling as the other.
Djokovic 7-6(1) 6-3 6-5 Ruud* Djokovic shanks a forehand – yes, you read that correctly, how absolutely date he, pathetic – then pauses for quiet before serving at 40-15. Here he goes, Ruud goes long, and there it is! I’ve never seen anything like it! Novak Djokovic has done it! He has done it, and we’ll never, ever, see anything or anyone like him again! A freak of nature, physically and mentally, and he is not close to finished yet!
*Djokovic 7-6(1) 6-3 6-5 Ruud Ruud goes long on the forehand for 15-0, then nets a return for 30. Djokovic has made and is making this look so routine, winning 10 points on the spin and zetzing a serve down the middle that sets up a yet another booming forehand. Three championship points, three points to go out alone on 23 majors. What on earth are we seeing, people? I’ve not the foggiest but please, drink it in, because whatever it is, it’s never happening again.
Djokovic 7-6(1) 6-3 6-5 Ruud* A backhand winner onto the line and Djokovic has 0-15, then Ruud swipes one just wide and , though he’s played the pressure-points well enough. this looks ominous. And, well, expletive! another sensational forehand – he’s hitting these so, so well at the moment – howls from centre to sideline, and after acknowledging the crowd he punishes a backhand down the line for a love break, and that was a perfect game, a shocking exhibition of power and control, skill and thinking. I simply cannot believe how good he is and nor can you. In 90 seconds, Novak Djokovic will serve for his third French Open and 23rd Grand Slam singles title. History has its eyes on him!
*Djokovic 7-6(1) 6-3 5-5 Ruud You’ve just got to laugh. An ace, Djokovic’s 10th, begins the game, then a backhand slice falls wide for 30-0. Next, another ace – he’s serving so well – and a forehand from the forehand corner, lashed cross-court for yet another ludicrous winner, leaves Ruud shaking his head as he attempts to serve for a breaker – at erast.
Djokovic 7-6(1) 6-3 4-5 Ruud* Out of nowhere, Djokovic annihilates a forehand from centre that breaks the sideline – it’s ridiculous – but then he nets a drop and Ruud clouts a a winner from mid-court. But a mishit then sails long for 30-all and the pressure ratchets up only for a forehand to go long before a backhand zips fractionally wide. Djokovic will now serve to stay in the set.
*Djokovic 7-6(1) 6-3 4-4 Ruud Ruud’s struggled to make any impression on the Djokovic serve since set one, but the Serb nets a volley then a forehand and is something happening here? Er, probably not, a net-cord sending the ball clambering over it then an ace down the middle levelling things and another, right onto the T, securing the hold. Djokovic raises an arm to salute the crowd –well, to salute himself really – and you can’ say he hasn’t earned the right. If he can break next up, he’ll be serving for the championship and the record.
Djokovic 7-6(1) 6-3 3-4 Ruud* Ruud punishes a backhand winner down the line then lands an ace on the T, the umpire overruling an out-call. Then, at 40-30, he pounds a forehand to the corner then cleans up with an overhead, and he’s fighting well to stick in this match.
*Djokovic 7-6(1) 6-3 3-3 Ruud Djokovic has yet to drop a point on serve in this set and at 15-0 he lands another ace on the T, then a service winner makes 40-15 and from there the game is quickly ended. Here comes the next breaking opportunity…
“The H2H thing,”” begins Gregory Phillips. “Not as fair a comparison as it might seem at first glance, since the peaks of Federer and Djokovic in particular didn’t align. It’s also the presence of the other two that also served to make this era what it is. With no Nadal, for example, Federer would likely have half a dozen more slams. I don’t think there’s a way to separate them, but if Djokovic was more likeable I doubt as many people would be disputing his GOAT status.”
Djokovic 7-6(1) 6-3 2-3 Ruud* Another disgraceful forehand from Djokovic, again into that backhand corner, gets him 15-all, then as Ruud comes in at 40-30, he pastes a pass past him, flat and cross court on the forehand. Ruud, though, again hangs in there, making advantage and closing out with an ace.
“As a Federer fan through and through,” writes Yogesh P, “I’m reluctantly on board with the fact that he does not have the best shout at being the GOAT. The arguments for Djokovic are straightforward. The argument for Nadal is also quite compelling though. If there is one achievement of these big three that is least likely to be repeated in the future, it is Nadal’s dominance of clay. Even the Grand Slam total can arguably be overcome in a weak competitive environment.”
Yes, and Nadal is better on clay than anyone else has been on any one surface – not something I thought I’d ever say when watching Sampras on grass – but I don’t think that’s a good metric because there are other surfaces.
*Djokovic 7-6(1) 6-3 2-2 Ruud It feels like every Djokovic service-game is staging post en route to another shot at getting Ruud broken; at 30-0, he mashes a forehand winner, but his opponent needs to start going for stuff because his current tactics aren’t working. Djokovic then sticks a pair of forehands into the backhand corner, the second a winner, and he is all over this match.
Djokovic 7-6(1) 6-3 1-2 Ruud* Ruud hasn’t given up, making 30-0 with a stretch volley and drive forehand. Djokovic, though, lands a deep backhand then despatches a very nice overhead – he seems to have rediscovered the ability to play that shot – then a backhand return is too good after which a forehand winner down the line raises break point. But then another backhand is swallowed by the net – Djokovic is less than gruntled – and from there, Ruud hangs on for an admirable hold. The Serb is, though, in nearly every one of his service games now, and you assume that at some point, one’ll be confiscated.
*Djokovic 7-6(1) 6-3 1-1 Ruud Ruud’s one of a few players – Berrettini and Tistsipas are others – who I can see making loads of major finals without winning any. It just feels that when it comes to it, they’ll always face a better player able to take advantage of their relatively weak backhands, though I guess Berrettini at least has that serve. Anyhow, another easy hold for Djokovic, who looks impregnable currently.
“Allow me a word for Andy Murray, please,” offers Simon McMahon. “For him to even be mentioned in the same breath as Federer, Djokovic and Nadal is testament to his greatness, I’d argue. Maybe not statistically (though he’s about to win again on grass in the UK), but as you rightly point out, it’s not all about simply doing the math. Greatness can be measured in many ways. If I could have one sporting wish for this year, it’s that Murray somehow makes the Wimbledon final…”
I love Murray, and his three majors are worth more than, say, Jim Courier’s four, and you can’t beat sportsfolk who stand for things, especially when those things are decency and integrity.
Djokovic 7-6(1) 6-3 0-1 Ruud* Ruud knows the jig is bust, and a brace of backhands earn Djokovic 15-30. He does well to retort with an ace, though, only his second of the match, and closes out from there.
“Essentially, it’s a perishingly fine line between greatest and favourite,” reckons Matt Dony. “A compelling case could probably be made for Federer, Nadal or Djokovic to be the greatest player, but it almost doesn’t matter. The three of them have all obliterated records, destroyed all-comers, and set new standards. I will always love Federer, and I want him to be the greatest. But can I prove objectively by watertight metrics that he was ‘better’ than the other two? No. And likewise for the fans of the other two. The important thing is, between them, they’ve brought joy to pretty much ALL tennis fans. We can, however, definitely agree on specific strengths that they all enjoy. Now, any elite sportsperson has mental strength, but I can’t think of many individuals in any sport who have shown greater focus, determination, cold-blooded will-to-win than Djokovic. I don’t particularly like him (for a great number of reasons) but I espect the hell out of him. Even when he’s a set or two down, you never expect him to lose. It’s astonishing. He’ll probably win today, and he deserves to. He is, inarguably, one of the greatest. Not just tennis players. One of the greatest competitors. One of the greatest sportspeople.”
*Djokovic 7-6(1) 6-3 Ruud Ruud goes long for 15-0 then Djokovic conjures a lovely angle to go from backhand corner to sideline, via forehand; he’s two points away. Another decent forehand then entices Ruud to slice into the net, and when a return drops short, a backhand down the line seals the set. Novak Djokovic is a set away from becoming the most successful singles player in the men’s game. He’s good at tennis, I reckon.
Djokovic 7-6(1) 5-3 Ruud* Djokovic whooshes a forehand onto the line and Ruud can retort, netting then clumping wide from mid-court with plenty of space to hit. That’a dreadful shot at a dreadful moment, and another terrific return helps bring about another error; two set points. Ruud, though, saves both, the second with a fantastic leaping forehand winner that breaks the sideline, rishes through deuce and Djokovic will have to serve for it. I fear he shall cope.
“Responding to Bruce Millar,” begins Jonathan Wallach, “You can’t be the GOAT if you aren’t the best of your own generation. Djokovic has a winning H2H against Federer as does Nadal. We know who was better when they played each other. Aesthetics are nonsense and a red herring for people who can’t accept the truth.”
*Djokovic 7-6(1) 5-2 Ruud Ruud does well at the net, approaching with a forehand to the corner then eventually guiding a volley into an empty space. Then coming in again, a succession of telling volleys leads to Djokovic netting, and at 15-30 he’s a sniff. But an overhit backhand ruins his lead then a dumped slice raises game point, and when Ruud has a high-bouncing ball to strike from the baseline, he nets.
Djokovic 7-6(1) 4-2 Ruud* A mishit forehand pass onto the line gives Ruud 30-15, a service winner takes him to within a point of the match, and when Djokovic goes long, he narrows the gap again.
The thing about Novak (and Nadal in his pomp) is once they break back and settle into the match you just expect them to play the big points better” returns James Wilson. “Six tiebreaks won out of six for Novak in this tournament and its not like Ruud did a whole lot wrong in that first set. I guess that’s the one thing it’s impossible to teach – the killer instinct comes out for the generational talents or goats and they always play their best on those points. It’s why they win so much and so often. Ruud is playing about as well as he can and he’s excellent on clay yet every big point since the middle of the first set Novak has won. That’s no accident.”
I agree and this is why I think he’s the greatest. His consistency is like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and that’s why I’d feel most comfortable with him playing to save me from death.
*Djokovic 7-6(1) 4-1 Ruud An ace down the middle, his seventh, gives Djokovic 30-0, but a forehand into the net gives Ruud a sniff. A very light sniff. A forehand winner then totally surprises him – it’s not in the corner or close, the ball passing not too far from his body – is enough for 40-15 only for a double, Djokovic’s first of the match, to keep it close. But Ruud then returns long and the second set looks like it’ll soon be over.
Djokovic 7-6(1) 3-1 Ruud* Djokovic whips a forehand winner cross-court for 15-all, Ruud frozen by the devastating brilliance of it. But he then misses fractionally with another, nets, sends a return long, and the Norwegian is on the board in set two.
*Djokovic 7-6(1) 3-0 Ruud Djokovic consolidates to 15 and looks every inch like a man about to win a record 23rd major.
“Maybe Nadal peaked early (2010?), “ begins Kevin Simons, “but he won two majors as recently as last year, and he’s less than a year older than Djokovic. Any talk that he’s been unfortunate to fall between generations is nonsense. He has a losing record to Joker, hasn’t beaten him on grass in over a decade, and hasn’t taken a single set off him on a hard court since the 2013 US Open. The only reason their head to head is even close is because they have played a disproportionate number of matches, 29, on clay. Forget it. Joker is the GOAT.”
Djokovic 7-6(1) 2-0 Ruud* Trouble for Ruud who finds himself down 0-30 – Djokovic is starting to hum – and though a forehand into the corner halves the arrears, a fine forehand returns raises two break points. And Ruud saves both, Djokovic getting really close on the second with a forehand that’s fractionally wide … only for the Serb to finally nail an overhead – set up by another decent return – that gives him advantage. Ruud is struggling to land first serves now and he doesn’t here, but he does get to deuce. So Djokovic finds another fine return then directs his man to hither and yon before cleaning up, and a sliced backhand yanks Ruud to the net, a lob forces him away from it, and a drop is too good. That’s the break and this match is only going one way.
“At risk of prolonging an endless and futile argument,” begins Bruce Millar, “Roger Federer is clearly the GOAT, for two reasons:
1. There is nothing to choose between F/N/D on overall stats, with 82/3% pro wins. But Fed has won significantly more Wimbledons and US Opens that the others (go and count them). Paris is a specialist surface (and btw they endlessly tweaked Wimbledon’s grass to make it more accommodating for Nadal et al), and Melbourne just isn’t so important (I write this as a proud half-Aussie).
2. Greatness in anything has to be measured in more than maths. There is an aesthetic component, too, and Fed wins on this measure by a double bagel.
I think that concludes the debate.”
As per below, I agree that greatness is measured in more than maths. But it’s also measured in more than maths and aesthetics, so I totally understand why and if some people prefer Nadal’s muscular indefatigability to Federer’s grace.
*Djokovic 7-6(1) 1-0 Ruud Ruud must start this set well, but having slogged for 81 minutes and received the cube root of nowt as a reward, it’s easier said than done. Djokovic holds to love and is 76% on first serves in, 73% on points won when that happens. This next game is a biggun.
Off we go again.