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By Richard Pagliaro | Sunday, June 13, 2021


Novak Djokovic fought back from a two-set deficit defeating Stefanos Tsitsipas in the French Open final for his 19th major crown that puts him halfway to the Grand Slam.

Photo credit: Roland Garros Facebook

Major mountains inspire Novak Djokovic to new heights.

When the world No. 1 found himself staring down a two-set deficit to 22-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas in today's French Open final, the son of a skier never flinched at the demands of the steep and dirty climb.

Tsitsipas: Good Wasn't Enough

Djokovic changed his clothes, imposed champion's character and calmly hit his way into history.

Fighting from two sets down for the first time in a Slam final, a determined Djokovic defeated a valiant Tsitsipas 6-7(6), 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 capturing his 19th major championship and propelling himself halfway to the calendar Grand Slam.

Climbing off the red clay after a tough tumble in the first set, Djokovic found his footing ascending rare air as the only man in Open Era history to win all four Grand Slam championships twice. 

"Of course, I am thrilled and I'm very proud of this achievement," Djokovic said. "I think part of the history of the sport that I love with all my heart is always something that is very inspiring and very fulfilling for me. I couldn't be happier and more satisfied with this kind of scenario in the last 48 hours. Probably ranks at the top three all-time achievements and experiences that I had in my professional tennis career."

In a rematch of the 2020 semifinals, Djokovic climbed off the clay canvas to top Tsitsipas for the fifth time in a row. Djokovic is once again king of all surfaces holding Australian Open, Roland Garros and (2019) Wimbledon trophies simultaneously, while solidifying his status as a major marathon man. The man whose fitness and stamina was suspect early in his career, is transformed into supreme closer scoring his sixth comeback from two sets down improving to 35-10 in five-setters.

Two days after dethroning 13-time Roland Garros champion Rafael Nadal in a brutal and beautiful four-hour classic, Djokovic again amped up his serve, sharpened his shotmaking, dug deep in the dirt and ascended to a level the maiden major finalist could not sustain.

A gripping four hour, 11-minute comeback empowered Djokovic to his 19th Grand Slam championship closing the gap on 20-time major champions Nadal and Roger Federer as he continues his determined climb toward tennis immortality.

It's a massive major statement for Djokovic, who scales an elite peak in the sport's history. Djokovic stands shoulder-to-shoulder with legendary lefty Rod Laver and Roy Emerson as the third man to win all four Grand Slam championships twice.

The champion who combines an Ironman's stamina, dancer's footwork, the body control of a contortionist and a life-guard's fast first step can equal his Big 3 rivals by stepping up and successfully defending his Wimbledon crown in two week's time at SW19.

Djokovic says the Golden Grand Slam, a feat achieved only by Hall of Famer Steffi Graf, is a goal within reach.

"Everything is possible, and I did put myself in a good position to go for the Golden Slam," Djokovic said. "But, you know, I was in this position in 2016 as well. It ended up in a third-round loss in Wimbledon.

"This year we have only two weeks between the first round of Wimbledon and the finals here, which is not ideal because you go from really two completely different surfaces, trying to make that transition as smooth as possible."

It's a heart-breaking loss for Tsitsipas, who was aiming to become the first Greek Grand Slam champion, put himself in position to see the dream, but but succumbed to the Serbian's crisp cross-court combinations, rocket strikes down the line and prescient court coverage.

A shattered-looking Tsitsipas sat for a moment with his head draped in a towel before fans roused his spirits in an emotional show of respect chanting "Tsitsipas! Tsitsipas!"

"I felt like I kind of lost my game a little bit. I really wish I could understand why things like this happened and evolved," Tsitsipas said. "But I was trying to figure it out during my game. It was difficult to come up with something.

"It's very unfortunate, very sad in the same way because it was a good opportunity. I was playing good. I was feeling good. Yeah, I lost an opportunity to do something better today."

This French Open fortnight began with some questioning if Djokovic was downright crazy to play his hometown tournament in Belgrade the week before chasing history in Paris.

It ended with Djokovic muting all doubts in a 19th major statement and an 11-match clay-court winning streak. Djokovic pulled off mission impossible in physically beating down the tireless Nadal to become the first man in history to conquer the king of clay twice at Roland Garros. Today's comeback was impressive and inspiring given the historic stakes, and aches, pains and strains the Serbian expended just to reach this final.

Emerging from one of his lowest major points last fall—Djokovic got kicked out of the US Open for inadvertently striking a lineswoman in the throat with a ball before being bounced out of the 2020 French Open final in a straight-sets thrashing by a ruthless Nadal—the top-seeded Serbian was flying high through the finish line today.

Contesting his 29th major final, the marathon man won his record seventh Grand Slam title since turning 30. 

After expending all that effort, Djokovic wasn't done giving. In a touching gesture of athlete connecting with audience, something missed so dearly durng pandemic lock down, he handed his Head racquet to a kid in the front row sending the young fan into a bopping frenzy of elation.

Since the 2018 Roland Garros, Djokovic and Nadal have split the spoils seizing 10 of the last 11 Grand Slam crowns with Dominic Thiem the only other player to have won a major title prevailing at the US Open last September.

Grand Slam final opening games are usually a feeling out process. These two blew up the blue-print and came out slugging.

The opening game popped with shotmaking—Djokovic's acute-angle forehand return gave him a break point, the Greek lashed a backhand down the line to save it—then Tsitsipas threw down three aces in row to hold with a clenched fist and emphatic statement.

Tsitsipas thumped game-ending aces in his first two service games and Djokovic answered, stamping successive love holds.

Seven games into the match, Djokovic was speeding toward a drop shot his left foot caught near the line and the top seed went sprawling crashing to the clay stomach first while narrowly avoiding colliding with the wooden net post. Djokovic, who had survived body blows Nadal fired as passing shots in the semifinals, scraped himself off the dirt while wife Jelena, stood in stands, watching, hands clasped hoping her elastic husband could bounce back from a tough tumble.

Dripping dueling strokes that seemed to spring from an impressionist painting, Tsitsipas kept calm when Djokovic played a sliding drive around the net post and flicked a running forehand holding for 5-4.

Staring down set point, the 18-time Grand Slam champion made a stand. Digging in behind the baseline, Djokovic answered everything his opponent offered, winning a rousing 28-shot rally denying set point. The point powered him through the crucial hold to level after 10 games.

Oppressive combinations from Djokovic elicited errors from Tsitsipas, who was looking more winded and hit with a time violation, as the top seed broke first for 6-5.  After saving set point in the prior game, Djokovic stepped up to serve for the set.  Tsitsipas broke right back, exploiting a sloppy game from the Serbian to force the tie breaker.

Launching an exhilarating tie breaker on the attack, the Greek raced out to a 4-0 lead—by then Tsitsipas had won eight of the last nine points. Chasing a drop volley, Tsitsipas crashed to the court near the service line and he arose with a wide swath of salmon-colored clay streaking the back of his white adidas shirt. We know Djokovic is a brilliant baseliner, but he showed superb net reactions blocking a backhand drop volley that crawled over the tape like a caterpillar creeping over a wall for 3-5. Another slick backhand volley winner brough Djokovic to 5-all.

Staring down set point at 5-6, Tsitsipas fought off a deep return into the body redirecting a forehand down the line. That stirring reaction shot had fans chanting "Tsitsipas! Tsitsipas!" On his second set point, Tsitsipas unleashed a flurry of forehands drawing the forehand error to win a phenomenal first set.

The world No. 1 had won seven straight tie breakers in Grand Slam finals since the 2015 Wimbledon, but Tsitsipas was brilliant under pressure. The Greek slammed seven aces and won all six trips to net winning the 68-minute opener by taking his cracks rather than waiting for the world No. 1 to break down.

How would Djokovic respond physically and emotionally after winning back-to-back battles against Italians Lorenzo Musetti and Matteo Berrettini before the grueling all-out clay-court war conquering the king of clay in four hours, 11 minutes? Djokovic had won 73 consecutive major matches when winning the first set. The slender Serbian would now need to dig down even deeper to rally on one of the hottest days of the tournament against a red-hot opponent 12 years younger who figured to be revitalized.

Still wearing the same shirt scarred with red dirt, Tsitsipas slashed a forehand down the line for break point in the opening game of the second set and when Djokovic scattered a forehand the Greek had his second break. Tsitsipas, who owned a 14-0 French Open record when winning the first set, stretched his lead confirming the break.

Whipping his kick serve to displace Djokovic behind the baseline and set up his first strike, Tsitsipas zapped his third game-ending ace extending to 4-2.

Tennis Express

A disconcerted Djokovic resorted to the drop shot, but Tsitsipas burst off the mark and shoveled a pass. In his maiden major final, the 22-year-old Greek exuded more fuel and firepower scoring his third break for 5-2 with roaring approval of fans waving the Greek flag.

Slashing a serve winner that left the top seed flailing, Tsitsipas soared to a two-set lead after one hour, 42 minutes.

Returning to court after a bathroom break, Djokovic was sporting fresh clothes and renewed energy.

"Obviously there's always two voices inside: there is one telling you that you can't do it, that it's done, it's finished," Djokovic said. "That voice was pretty strong after that second set. So I felt that that was a time for me to actually vocalize the other voice and try to suppress the first one that was saying I can't make it.

"I told myself I can do it, encouraged myself. I strongly started to repeat that inside of my mind, tried to live it with my entire being. Once I started playing in that third set, especially in the first few games, I saw where my game is at, it kind of supported that second voice that was more positive, more encouraging."

The world No. 1 immediately applied pressure with a barrage of break points in the fourth game. Tsitsipas fought off four break points with some timely strikes, but Djokovic kept calm and continued to work the corners.

Fans were chanting "Nole! Nole!" and the Australian Open champion answered the call, earning his first break since the opening set for a 3-1 third-set lead.

  A driven Djokovic, who fought back from two sets down to defeat Musetti the fourth round and recovered from a love-5 start to fight off Nadal in an epic semifinal, showed champion's character and resolve sustaining his lead. Taking short preparation steps across the clay to get his body behind the ball, Djokovic drilled crosscourt forehands to force a fourth set.

Then it was Tsitsipas' turn to leave court before taking treatment for an apparent back issue. It all added up to an eight-and-a-half minute break and it did not stop the Sebian's moment. Djokovic locked down the baseline and spread the court masterfully, coaxing running errors in breaking to start the fourth set.

Remarkably, given all he'd endured to reach this final, Djokovic looked fresher physically and more serene emotionally. The depth of Djokovic's drives didn't give Tsitsipas much to work with and then the Serbian pounced. Seeing Tsitsipas retreat even further behind the baseline, Djokovic froze the Greek with a clean dropper breaking again for 3-0. Swinging freely, Djokovic flew through a love hold winning his fifth straight game.

Djokovic drilled a backhand bolt down the line to force a fifth set after three hours, 14 minutes. Given the physicality of both men's punishing semifinals, who would have more left to give with one set to play for the championship? And how would the 12-year age gap between finalists—the third largest age gap in French Open final history—play out in the decider? Would Djokovic's experience triumph over Tsitsipas' younger legs?

The six-time French Open finalist drove the ball down both lines gaining a break point to open, but Tsitsipas hit behind him to save it and hold.

The father of two showed plenty of life in his legs running down drop shots to earn break point in the third game. Returning out of the shadow caused by the retractable roof above, Djokovic cracked a return that helped him score his fifth break for 2-1.

A double break point deficit confronted Tsitsipas who teetered on the ledge of fatal deficit in the seventh game. Tsitsipas staved off both, including winning a dizzying all-court point at net, standing his ground for 3-4.

Serving for the championship, Djokovic ratcheted up the drama netting a routine volley. At 30-all he opened the court forehand crosscourt on championshp point one. Tsitsipas lashed an outragous backhand bolt down the line to save it.

Four hours and 10 minutes into dizzying drama, Djokovic drilled a forehand winner down the line for a second championship point. Djokovic knocked off a forehand volley to close his 19th major and second Roland Garros championship in style.

Five years ago, Djokovic defeated Andy Murray, 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4, to win his first Roland Garros and complete the career Grand Slam. On that day, Djokovic joined the giants of the game, capturing his fourth consecutive Grand Slam crown and 12th major title. He stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Don Budge and Rod Laver as only the third man in history to hold all four major championships simultaneously—47 years after Laver completed the feat.

Now, you can make the case that while the 19-time Grand Slam champion trails rivals Nadal and Federer in the overall Grand Slam race he has edged above the sport's tallest towers in overall achievement given he owns a winning record against both rivals, has mastered all nine Masters 1000 championships, has held the world No. 1 ranking longer, owns more year-end world No. 1 finishes and is the only man in Open Era history to win all four Grand Slam crowns.

As part of his mental preparation for clay season, Djokovic and wife Jelena hiked Rtanj mountain.

A master of all surfaces, Djokovic is playing like a champion committed to climbing more major mountains.


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