The clay courts at Roland Garros turned to mud as rain buffeted the grounds throughout the French Open. Dampened conditions on the ninth day of the tournament forced the first cancellation of matches in 16 years. As rain continued to suffocate Paris, competitors fumed at officials as play resumed on what they believed were unsafe courts. The sun made its only cameo appearance right after Novak Djokovic collapsed to the ground and exhaled. The world’s top-ranked tennis player finally captured the one Grand Slam trophy that eluded him his entire career.
Nine-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal withdrew with a left wrist injury after he cruised past the third round. The king of clay has made a habit of early exits as he failed to participate in the fourth round of the last four major tournaments. Fellow legend Roger Federer skipped the French Open altogether to recover from a back injury sustained in early May, breaking a streak of 65 major appearances. With his fiercest rivals sidelined, Djokovic bulldozed into the final round where he met second-ranked Andy Murray. The Scotsman announced his presence with authority as he took the first set 6-3. Djokovic showed the composure and precision we have come to expect and dominated the next three sets, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4.
Tennis is one of the few major sports that forces the runner-up to share the stage with the champion as they get crowned and celebrated. Picture LeBron James on the court when the Golden State Warriors raised the Larry O’Brien trophy in Cleveland last year. Now imagine that four more times. That’s how often Murray has lost to Djoker in the final round of an Grand Slam tournament. It’s as if he’s been cast in a remake of Bill Murray’s “Groundhog Day.” Their playing styles mirror one another in defensive agility, velocity in serves, pinpoint strokes, and finesse around the net. Djokovic just does everything a little better.
With his first French Open triumph, he became the just eighth man to have won all four major titles in their career. His 12th major victory placed him number four on the all-time list, tied with Roy Emerson. This was his fourth consecutive Slam win as well, a feat last accomplished in the men’s field by Rod Laver in 1969. The last woman to do so, Serena Williams in 2015, could not replicate her male counterpart’s success.
Aside from a tough three-set quarterfinals win against sixty-ranked Yulia Putintseva, the defending champion had coasted into the final round. Garbine Muguruza stood in her way of Steffi Graf’s record of 22 major titles. The stats for this match paint a deceiving picture; aces, double faults, winners and unforced errors were all in her favor. What made the difference was the severity of her errors. Fans are accustomed to seeing Serena overpower the field with strikes that turn the fuzzy green ball into a blur. But her 22 year-old opponent was not intimidated.
Muguruza flipped the script on the one-seeded Williams and elevated her game to new heights. She sealed the first set 7-5 with a screeching backhand down the line. A thigh injury seemed to limit Williams’ mobility, but she denied the claim in her post match press conference and differed credit to Muguruza. Rally after rally, the six-foot Spaniard was in complete control of the match. When down four championship points in the second set, Williams hunkered down and refused to break serve at 5-3. In the past, Serena’s opponent, having sensed the shift in momentum, would have succumbed to her will and accepted defeat. Muguruza not only endured the adversity, but dealt it back, having held Serena at love in her last service to end the match 7-5, 6-4.
In each of Williams’ three attempts to secure a 22nd major, a first-time champion raised the trophy instead. At 34 years-old, her tennis mortality is fast approaching and the aura of invincibility she once carried has diminished. With each defeat, the field of combatants becomes less in awe of her raw talent and more emboldened in their climb to the top. “When you see people that are winning and there’s new faces, it makes you think, like, ‘I can be one of those faces,’” Muguruza said after the match. She rose to second in the world rankings, one step closer to knocking Williams off the top perch. With a dozen years of wear-and-tear separating the two, this result may be a sign of things to come.
As the tour cycles into grass season, Federer made his return to the courts in the Mercedes Cup in Stuttgart. The time off appears to have revitalized the 17-time Grand Slam winner as Wimbledon, the next major and his most successful tournament, begins on June 27. The All-England Club voraciously cheered on Federer in 2014 and 2015, but Djokovic stole the show and the trophy in both final round matchups. The disparity between Djokovic and the men’s field grows as the women’s field narrows the gap between themselves and Williams.
Nole’s dominance transcends surfaces, playing styles and even Mother Nature. The skies cleared for him as center court welcomed a bath of sunlight. He etched a heart in the clay and laid spread-eagle victorious. Halfway to the calendar Slam and with no signs of slowing down, Djokovic has carved out a legacy for himself in an era of greatness.
Published in The Ticker