The jeers started in the third set. Casper Ruud had regained some of that first-set spunk and made a 0-30 dent on Novak Djokovic’s serve in the seventh game, with the set poised on serve at 3-4. The Serb got out of a tough rally as his forehand caught the tape and bounced onto Ruud’s side of the court. ‘Booooo.’
A few moments later Djokovic was given a time violation for not serving before the shot clock ran out – Ruud had already raised the issue of Djokovic’s slow serving with the chair umpire before. ‘Booooo.’ Djokovic gathered himself as the loose red clay flew in the swirling breeze and closed out the game with an ace down the T. He glared around the stadium, raised and wagged his racquet.
The notorious French crowd, with neither Roger Federer nor Rafael Nadal to get behind, had heckled players more boisterously than ever. They had been particularly harsh on Djokovic, when he lost points, when he won points, even when he pumped his fists in an otherwise tame celebration after beating Carlos Alcaraz in arguably the toughest match of his French Open campaign. The Serb’s response was: “I don’t mind; I just keep winning.” The lounder they jeered, the stronger he got. That summed up his 2023 French Open and almost his entire career. He’s done trying to become the people’s favourite. He’s playing for history.
Djokovic defeated Casper Ruud, playing his third final in last five majors, 7-6 (1), 6-3, 7-5 in the final to clinch his 23rd major and pull ahead of Rafael Nadal in the race for most Grand Slam titles. While Nadal, sidelined with injury, has 22 majors to his name, the retired Roger Federer has 20.
“It’s symbolic in a way that I won my historic 23rd here in Roland Garros, makes it even sweeter and greater knowing what it takes to win Roland Garros for me,” said Djokovic, who reclaimed the World No 1 spot on 12 June. “It’s not to take anything away from winning of any other Slam, but just Roland Garros is the highest mountain to climb for me, in my career.”
With the triumph, Djokovic also levelled Serena Williams for most singles majors in the Open Era (post 1968). Only Margaret Court, 24 in the amateur Era, has more in tennis history. At 36 years and 20 days, the Serb became the oldest French Open champion and first player to win more than 10 (11) Grand Slams after the age of 30. He is also now the only male player to hold three or more titles at each of the four majors, underlining his all-court genius.
As great as they have been at defying age, time has been the biggest rival of the Big 3 -- they haven’t been pushed out of relevance by younger generations. Federer quit the game last year at 41 and a 37-year-old Nadal admitted that 2024 might be his last season. Before the start of the French Open, questions loomed over the fitness and form of Djokovic. He had an ordinary 5-3 record in the 2023 clay season, was dealing with an elbow injury and hadn’t won anything since January’s Australian Open.
“He has this software in his head that he can switch when a Grand Slam comes. Grand Slam is a different sport compared to other tournaments,” his coach and former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic said on Sunday. “The day we arrived here, he was better, he was more motivated, he was more hungry. Every day he played better and better.”
On the Parisian red clay, Djokovic was far from his ruthless best. He scraped past Marton Fucsovics and Alejandro Davidovich Fokina in the first two rounds. Karen Khachanov and Carlos Alcaraz took a set off him in the quarterfinals and semi-finals respectively. But Djokovic finished each of those matches stronger than he started.
In the popcorn semi-final showdown against Alcaraz, Djokovic was routinely at the receiving end of some incredible defending and spectacular shot-making. He huffed and puffed to stay in touch with an opponent 16 years younger. Djokovic and the World No 1 Spaniard, anointed as Nadal’s heir apparent in Paris, split the first two sets after an intense battle. Incredibly, though, Alcaraz was the one who broke down physically. He started cramping in the beginning of the third set and never quite recovered.
“If someone says that he [goes on] court with no nerves playing against Novak, he lies,” Alcaraz said. “I started match really nervous. The tension of the first set, the second set, it was really intense two sets as well. Really good rallies, tough rallies, drop shots, sprints, rallies. It’s a combination of a lot of things. But, you know, the main thing, it was the tension.”
Alcaraz in full flight is a joy to watch, but he can learn a thing or two about tactical pacing from Djokovic. The Serb is the best counter-puncher in the business, but he doesn’t go for broke on every point in every match. Like a predator, he first circles the prey, prises out their weakness and pattern of play, then pounces on the big moments. Against Ruud, the shifting of gears came in the first set tie-break. Happy to defend and grind out points in the first hour, Djokovic went on the offensive straightaway, clocking a forehand winner on the run to win the first point. He wrapped up the tie-break 7-1 with a service winner and a forehand winner. At this year’s French Open, Djokovic played and won a total of six tie-breaks; his combined tally of unforced errors: zero. The flawless performance punctured whatever hope Ruud may have marshalled from a competitive first set.
With some of the most famous athletes in the world – Tom Brady, Mike Tyson, Kylian Mbappe, Zlatan Ibrahimovic – in attendance, Djokovic gave a masterclass in closing the deal as he won 12 of the last 13 points.
Through his career, a lot of focus has been on Djokovic’s physical conditioning, his incredible flexibility, endurance, his gluten-free diet, the lengths he has gone to – like using a hyberbaric (oxygen) chamber for recovery and the nano-technology power patch he’s been sporting at the French Open – to enhance performance. But it’s that ‘software’ that Ivanisevic talked about that has seen Djokovic scale the Grand Slam peak. The belief, not just to win, but to be the most successful player in the era of Federer and Nadal.
Iga Swiatek isn’t just used to winning, she’s used to winning big. She entered the 2023 French Open final with an ominous record: Swiatek had won all 13 finals she had played before and won 11 of those, including the two in Paris, in straight sets. And it looked like the Pole, who had a far from ideal run-up to the French Open this time, would continue to dominate as she took a 6-2, 3-0 lead over Karolina Muchova in Saturday’s final.
But Muchova had scripted the best escape this French Open, coming back from a match point and 2-5 down against Aryna Sabalenka in the semi-final. The Czech player, whose 2022 French Open had ended in injury and tears, was determined for a turnaround. She started taking huge cuts at the ball and ripped forehands down the line. Muchova rallied to win the second set 7-5 and won the first eight points in the third set.
Though it was new territory for her, Swiatek calmed her nerves in the decider and started taking control of the rallies. She hit two backhand passes to earn a break at 2-2. The Pole fought back not with fire but common sense. She was patient and put the onus on Muchova to go for the big winners. With the finish line in sight in her first ever Grand Slam final, the Czech faltered. Two forehand errors and a double fault on match point from Muchova saw Swiatek claim the third set 6-4 and the championship.
The 22-year-old, who has now won the first four Grand Slam finals she has played, became the first woman since Justine Henin, in 2007, to defend her French Open crown.
“I don't know what I felt,” Swiatek said after winning her third French Open and fourth major. “I felt suddenly tired of these three weeks. Maybe my matches weren't physically exhausting, but it's pretty hard to keep your focus for these almost three weeks. I'm happy that I finished the whole clay court swing so well, and that I kind of survived. I'm never going to doubt my strength again because of that.”
Defending her title like a champion, Swiatek proved she was ready to win the hard way.
Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter