Novak Djokovic: French Open’s latest finish galvanises world No 1

It took five months, two matches, and too much tennis that lasted into the small hours of the night. At 3:06 a.m. Sunday morning in Paris, the version of Novak Djokovic that has become so familiar over the better part of the past decade finally emerged.

When it was over, Djokovic gave full credit to the crowd for turning him into his old self at 2-2 in the fourth set. Prior to that, the 37-year-old had struggled to penetrate the aesthetic steel of 22-year-old 30th seed Lorenzo Musetti, an opponent he described as impenetrable.

Really, there was one especially important person in the crowd who probably needed more credit than anyone else. That would be his wife, Jelena, the teenage sweetheart who turned into his life companion and stuck around through the inevitable chaos and dips of his life and their bond.

At this moment, she is just about the only person in his inner circle who has been there for the long haul, especially during the nine-month period in which he has jettisoned much of his staff for the final segment of his career.

Jelena Djokovic watching on. (Pierre Suu/WireImage)


At a game apiece in that fourth set, he and Jelena locked eyes. The rest of his box was pretty quiet, but Jelena was up on her feet, clapping her hands, making it clear her husband knew the tennis and more importantly, the drive, was still inside him, if he wanted to find it.

He’d just held serve. He shook his racket it her a few times, the start of grin coming onto his face, as if to tell her not to worry, he was here for it. 

She got a little louder, pumping her hands with a little more. The grin turned into a full blown smile, and he yelled to her in that language that only longtime companions keep between each other. 

And then Jelena was laughing hard, clutching her fingers in front of her chin at the absurdity of it all. Two old kids, having a late night in the City of Light, a place that long ago made the 2 a.m. jazz set famous, as though she knew what was coming next.

Djokovic Jelena

Djokovic knew who to credit for his victory. (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP via Getty Images)

Rick Stine, the longtime coach who guided Jim Courier to No. 1 three decades ago, likes to talk about what he calls his  “conversion theory” in tennis. Any player can turn any game, and sometimes any match, around in the space of three points. That’s all it takes to shift the momentum 180 degrees, to drive an opponent from comfort and cruise control to panic and doubt. 

“Do the math,” says Stine, who now coaches Tommy Paul. It’s all about making the scoreboard work for your brain. 

Djokovic had made it clear to Jelena that he wasn’t going anywhere, but Musetti, the gifted and fluid Italian, wouldn’t catch wind of that for another two games, when he was leading 40-15, a point away from being three games away from sending the defending champion and 24-time Grand Slam winner away from Court Philippe-Chatrier.



Novak Djokovic is counting himself out – is it for real this time?

Djokovic jumped into a return, catching it four feet inside the baseline, then hit a drop shot and sent an easy volley into the open court. Musetti gifted him the next point with a double fault. Then came some deep loops to Musetti’s one-handed backhand. Before long, one of them sailed wide. Musetti would gain a momentary reprieve with a big serve that Djokovic couldn’t get back.

Djokovic Tired scaled

Djokovic had to labor at times. (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP via Getty Images)

That got him jawing with Boris Bosnjakovic, the 50-year-old from of Novi Sad in Serbia who has helped him scout opponents on-and-off, but is now in his box, at least for this event — helping to fill the void left by Goran Ivanisevic in March.

He’s not the new coach. It’s a team effort from a shrunken coterie, with Jelena serving the dual roles of wife and psychologist, Djokovic would later explain. A forehand drive down the line got him to the brink, and then he completed the resurrection with a nifty backhand slice approach shot that Musetti ran for but could only send back wide. 

His arms rose up to the crowd, at one set of stands and then another. He took a seat on his bench, and let his lungs heave for a moment to pull in some oxygen. In this moment, at least, he’d found himself again.

It was time to run downhill. Musetti won just one more game.

Musetti scaled

Musetti couldn’t convert two sets of brilliance into three. (Clive Mason/Getty Images)

It might appear harsh to suggest it’s about time, not only for this tournament but for this trophyless year, but that’s pretty much how Djokovic feels about the results. There was the semi-final drubbing from Jannik Sinner at the Australian Open; the bizarre loss to the green and unproven Italian Luca Nardi, then the world’s 123rd ranked player, in March in Indian Wells. 

Casper Ruud of Norway get his first career win over Djokovic in Monte Carlo, and then he lost to Alejandro Tabilo of Chile and Tomas Machac of the Czech Republic in Rome and then Geneva. These are all losses that can befall a top player, that have done so throughout the Open era and will continue to do so as new stars are born. But Djokovic has acquired such a sense of inevitability, hardened by his rivalry with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal whose feedback loop lifted them higher and higher above the rest of the field, that when they happen to him they are disorienting. 

Through all those odd results, there have been strange moments of resignation and disinterest from a player who prides himself on his passion and his fight, on the willingness to go to dark places and endure intense discomfort, in order to get where wants to go.

He’s been there and he’s come out, surpassing the titles of Federer and Nadal, establishing himself as arguably the greatest of his era.

But that leaves him asking: where does he need to go next? What is he willing to do to get there? He hasn’t found the answers this year, not until the witching hour on the clay on Sunday.

When it was over, he told the crowd it was long past everyone’s bedtime, especially the children still sitting courtside. He said he was going to be up for a while though. He had to shower and eat and go through the usual post-match routines. That wasn’t the real problem though — not with the adrenaline of the moment coursing through his body.  

The real problem was that all he wanted to do was party.

(Top photo: Mateo Villalba / Getty Images)

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