On Sunday, as Norway stormed past Casper Ruud in straight sets to win the French Open title, Novak Djokovic left no room for debate.

Djokovic routinely dispatched Ruud 7-6(1), 6-3, 7-5 to win a record-breaking 23rd Grand Slam singles championship. He has reached 34 finals.

He emphatically sealed his authority as the single most successful player in men’s tennis by winning his third Roland Garros trophy, which means he’s won each of the four major tennis tournaments at least three times, which is a massive feat considering tennis’s diverse and physical arsenal. The dexterity required to consistently outpace three different surfaces.

Djokovic has now won 94 career titles, including at least two in each of the nine Masters 1000 tournaments – one place fewer than the four Grand Slam – events. It has spent 374 weeks at number one worldwide. By every conceivable measure of a tennis player’s greatness, Djokovic’s victory in Paris put him ahead of rivals Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, who have won 22 and 20 majors, respectively.

With both Nadal and Federer fading into the light due to mounting physical problems, Djokovic went on to defeat players closer to his children’s age than his own, not only through pure technique and experience, but also with superior physique. On Friday, he beat Carlos Alcaraz in the semi-finals in what was billed as a clash of generations for the ages that the Serb led in four sets thanks to his superior physique, as Alcaraz succumbed to a muscle cramp.

An elegant shot-maker, Federer pushed the sport’s technical boundaries, while Nadal, through brute and tenacious strength, pushed the sport’s physical boundaries. Djokovic, who didn’t enjoy nearly the kind of fanfare that either of them got, managed to do both while constantly evolving his game to battle opponents, surfaces, and challenges over several different generations.

Seismic feats of the kind achieved by Djokovic are usually celebrated on Sundays around the world. However, outside of his small, enthusiastic fanbase and the Balkans in Europe, most of the tennis world wouldn’t be eager to do more than grudgingly acknowledge and politely applaud.

This is, in essence, Novak Djokovic’s tragedy – that he is unable to receive the adoration he craves despite his generation-defining accomplishments because no matter how hard he tries, no matter how deserving he is, this era isn’t really his. belong to him.

It can be very difficult to watch Djokovic’s penchant for showmanship with fans antagonizing him. Under such arrogance, he often seems so desperate to be liked and so frustrated when he isn’t. His penchant for outward expressions of hunger and stimulation irritates fans of a sport that clings to its traditions of gentle and friendly behaviour. The Serbian’s fist batting and shock seem more at home on the rocking cricket grounds of South Asia or European soccer fields, in contrast to the country club-like atmosphere of tennis tournaments.

His likeness to polemics, stemming from his insistence that he did not want his opinions to be censored no matter the consequences, makes him a public relations nightmare. And he doesn’t care, happy to exist outside the binaries to which modern mathematical symbols have been reduced in today’s PR-dominated world.

All of which, while most tennis fans have already chosen sides in the core rivalry between Nadal and Federer, has led to an enduring public perception of evil. A card he struggles to shake even in his mid-30s. In some ways, that’s unfortunate, because his life story and journey make for a great character.

His legendary inner mental strength and toughness, which he used to devastating effect return after return, stems from his upbringing in war-torn Serbia. What is a two-set deficit in a Grand Slam final for a man who, at the age of 11, has spent 78 nights at his aunt’s asylum with his family?

His amazing and enduring athleticism comes from a meticulous obsession with what he consumes. In 2010, after a series of physical meltdowns, when successful results followed a Serbian doctor’s diagnosis of apparent gluten sensitivity, Djokovic developed a spiritual connection with his body. This explains why his team has shielded recipes for energy drinks and protein shakes under a veil of secrecy, and why he has refused to take the vaccine against COVID-19—an enduring asterisk against his legacy of 16 years of uninterrupted excellence.

All of these qualities tell the story of an athlete from a generation not without its flaws. The stylistic debates will continue, and Federer’s agility and Nadal’s grit are always likely to win more plaudits than Djokovic’s methodical effectiveness. But after his victory in Paris, Djokovic left no doubt that he stands alone as the greatest of the era.

This is a crowning moment, but it does not indicate the end. At the age of 36, Djokovic seems to have a lot of tennis on his legs, and looks like he can get even better. With Federer and Nadal now sidelined, in acknowledging his genius, those of us who watch can do better, too.


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