Roland Garros 2016: Novak Djokovic on the Verge of Greatness By Richard Eaton

Roland Garros 2016: Novak Djokovic on the Verge of Greatness By Richard Eaton
Novak Djokovic should soon be challenging for the accolade of the greatest player of all time after beating Andy Murray 3-6 6-1 6-2 6-4 in the French Open final, making him part of a very small group who have simultaneously held all four Grand Slam titles - something no man has done since Rod Laver 47 years ago.
 
The Serb is also a contender for being considered the world’s greatest sportsman, having contested the last six Grand Slam finals. Apologies to Messrs Messi and Ronaldo are not needed.
 
Djokovic is not just the eighth man to complete a career Grand Slam, winning all four majors at different times, but only the fourth in the Open era. These latest accolades coming from his first French Open triumph, a tournament which since childhood he has most wanted to win.
 
Little wonder that the World No.1 suffered some spectacularly agonising minutes getting over the line, despite dominating three-quarters of the match. He double-faulted and failed to serve out the match at 5-2; then double-faulted again and missed two match points at 5-4 before sliding alarmingly back to deuce.
 
The Serb’s brain seemed frozen and his legs and arms moved in slow motion as he rallied at a painful half speed. “It was like my spirit has left my body,” Djokovic revealed. “I was just observing my body fight the last three or four exchanges, going left to right and hoping that Andy will make a mistake, which happened. Very few times in my career have I felt that my body was just on auto-pilot, because of the emotions.”
 
When the last point came rather weirdly his way as Murray drove a makeable backhand into the net, Djokovic threw himself backwards into the red dirt before jumping up and scouring a large heart into the court surface.
 
“This is the finest moment of my career,” he said in French, to the crowd’s great approval. “This is something I have never felt before. That’s what the heart meant.”
 
Djokovic has moved from excellence to greatness in the past three years, quite late considering he is now in his 30th year. This elevation came from physical improvements, reportedly from work on flexibility, perhaps helped by a gluten-free diet. His serve is more reliable, and as fiercely and effectively though Murray attacked in the first set, the Scot could find no weaknesses in the Serb after that. 
 
It gained Djokovic his twelve Grand Slam title, placing him fourth equal on the list with Roy Emerson, though the Australian’s dozen came in the amateur era. And among the three men who have won more, Pete Sampras, with 14, never won at Roland Garros.
 
Djokovic thus has strong claims to being considered one of the four greatest. If Sampras’ clay court shortcomings are considered significant, Djokovic is perhaps one of only three.
 
He looks capable of overtaking Rafa Nadal, who also has 14, and perhaps even Roger Federer, who has 17, to become the most successful player ever. He is already the richest, becoming the first to earn $100 million career prize money when he reached the quarter-finals.
 
Murray looked inconsolable, but it was a very positive French Open for him too. It had been 79 years since a Briton, Bunny Austin, reached a final, something Murray equalled by beating titleholder Stan Wawrinka 6-4 6-2 4-6 6-2.
 
This also enabled Murray to equal the most Grand Slam final appearances by a Briton – ten, achieved by Fred Perry. For an hour the Scot played well enough to raise hopes of matching the Englishman’s title triumph in 1935.
 
He was though unable to maintain the force and accuracy of his first set ground strokes, perhaps because his energy was less than needed. Murray’s first two matches both went to five sets and, incredibly, he was within two points from losing his opener to the draw’s oldest player, Radek Stepanek.
 
Only for a split second was Djokovic’s record bid in danger. It happened during his quarter-final with Tomas Berdych, when he angrily bounced his racket and saw it hurtle close to a line judge’s face. It was a few inches from causing a disqualification.
 
Serena WIlliams’ bid to equal Steffi Graf’s 22 Grand Slam open era titles ended in the women’s final with a 7-5 6-4 defeat to Garbine Muguruza, an elegantly gifted 22-year-old Venezuelan-Spaniard.
 
It was the 34-year-old American’s third attempt at this record and her second successive Grand Slam final loss, something which had never happened to her before. This fact, added to her age and an adductor injury which restricted her movement against a fearless younger rival questions whether her record-breaking chance is ebbing.
 
Muguruza was notably able to trade big blows with the heaviest hitter in the women’s game. Her wonderfully well-timed groundstrokes sometimes had Williams on the back foot, playing from behind the baseline. Even more surprisingly, Muguruza also handled the big points better.
 
Serena described her own game as having "just so many holes." She declined to blame the adductor problem or the pressure of a rain-ruined schedule. "I'm not one to make excuses,” she claimed. “I just didn't do what I needed to do.”
 
There had been signs earlier in the championships. Serena had been tense and leaden-footed during an unconvincing semi-final win over the inexperienced Kiki Bertens and made heaps of unforced errors while going a set and a break down to Yulia Putintseva, ranked only 60, in the quarter-finals.
 
Since losing to Roberta Vinci in last year’s US Open, only two wins from a calendar-year Grand Slam, Serena has appeared vulnerable. Is willpower alone keeping her at the top?
 
Other contenders had problems too. Agnieszka Radwanska, the second seed, and Simona Halep, the sixth, both complained about being made to play through rain on “impossible courts” after losing in the fourth round.
 
More conspicuous still were the absences of Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal. Federer withdrew with a bad back and Nadal quit with a wrist injury after two rounds. Federer is nearly 35 and Rafa has been plagued by injuries and no longer appear to stand in Djokovic’s way. What’s more, it will be hard for Murray, or anyone else, to do so now.
 
Roland Garros 2016, Paris France
Men's Singles:
[1] Novak Djokovic (SRB) bt [2] Andy Murray [GBT] 3-6 6-1 6-2 6-4
 
Women's Singles:
[4] Garbine Muguruza (SPN) bt [1] Serena Williams (USA) 7-5 6-4
 
Men's Doubles:
[15] Feliciano Lopez (SPN) & Marc Lopez (SPN) bt [5] Mike Bryan (USA) & Bob Bryan (USA) 6-4 6-7(6-8) 6-3
 
Women's Doubles:
[5] Kristina Mladenovic (FRA) & Caroline Garcia (FRA) bt [7] Ekaterina Makarova (RUS) & Elena Vesnina (RUS) 6-3 2-6 6-4
 
Mixed Doubles:
Martina Hingis (SUI) & Leander Paes (IND) bt [2] Sania Mirza & Ivan Dodig (CRO) 4-6 6-4 10-8

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