Djoke by Djoke: Novak's French Open history at a glance
- Djokovic made his French Open debut in 2005
- He has since won twice at Roland Garros
- We look back on his long association with the French Open
Novak Djokovic made his foray into the French Open in 2005. A wee lad of 18, the Serb wouldn't last past the Second Round. Debuting against American Robby Ginepri, he would announce himself with a 6-0 6-0 6-3 thrashing. With a clash against 2004's defeated finalist Guillermo Coria as a reward, The Serb would get his first feel of the Parisien spotlight. A set-apiece in the match, the crucial third would be a battle too far for Novak. Struggling from an unforeseen allergic reaction, he would retire, trailing 3-2 in the third. If the Djoker left early, a certain Rafael Nadal would snare his first French Open, blunting Roger Federer en route to the title.
A year on, the Serbian would fare better, moving into the quarters after a string of assured performances. Squaring off against defending champion and a growing clay-court demon in Nadal, the Serb fought gamely in the first two sets, going down 6-4 6-4. However, in a repeat of last season's exit, he would retire almost as soon as the third set had begun. The Mallorcan would coast to his second title at Roland Garros, slaying Federer in the finals. In the coming seasons, Nadal would continue to hold a hex over Nole on the red clay of Paris. Progressing to the semis in 2006, he was brushed aside in straight sets by the southpaw. The story would repeat itself 12 months on, as Nadal handed him another straight-set defeat.
After forgettable French Open losses to Phillip Kohlschreiber and Jurgen Muller in successive years, the Djoker would return in 2011 for another skirmish with Rafael. In their first bonafide clay court classic, the Spaniard edged a tight semi-final in four sets, including two absorbing tie-breakers. Nadal would continue to frustrate him further. Reaching the finals in 2012, Djokovic hoped to dethrone the Spaniard. Alas, it was not to be! It took four sets for the Spaniard to dispatch the Serb, leaving him one shy of Frenchman Max Decugis' 8 French Opens.
Djokovic, irrepressible as ever, would return next year, hungrily seeking out a first clay-court Grand Slam. Powering into the semis, he was drawn with Nadal once again. In a match for the ages, the two went pound-for-pound. Dropping the first set 4-6, the Serb would surge back stunningly, taking the second 6-3. Nadal would respond in kind, making the Serb scurry for cover in a 1-6 assault. Not one to shy away from a slug-fest, the baseline brawler dug deep to nick a tense fourth set 7-6 (7-3) in a nearly hour-long set. The drama would only intensify in the decider. As both players traded punches, the full-house at Phillipe Chatrier would often gasp at the brilliance on display. After 82 minutes of sparring, Nadal would break his serve to love, wrenching the final set 7-9. Close, but yet no cigar for Novak!
In the 2014 French Open. Djokovic's miseries against Nadal would continue. In front of a packed centre court, the Spaniard roared back after losing the first set to win their semi-final encounter 6-3, 5-7, 2-6, 4-6. Indefatigable as ever, the Belgrade boy returned to write his name on the Coupe des Mousquetaires. Tossed together in yet another semi-final, Novak was in a ruthless mood, shutting out Nadal in an unbelievable straight-set triumph. Controlling the tempo from the off, the Serb edged a tight first 7-5. From then on, it was a stroll. 6-3 in the second set, it would soon be over as Rafa crumbled under the Balkan's intensity. In the final, all was going as per plan. Racing to a 6-3 lead in the first set, the Serb seemed on course for his second Grand Slam of the year. But in Stanislas Wawrinka, he had an opponent playing with freedom unbeknownst to first-time finalists. The three sets that followed went by like a blur. Such was the ferocity of his racquet play, Djokovic was left red-faced after the whole ordeal.
After numerous near-misses, the Serbian arrived in Paris in 2016 determined to undo past mistakes. Commanding from first to last, Novak was in no mood to relent. Dropping only a set en route to the finals, he was an odds-on favourite to triumph over Scotsman Andy Murray. The Serb started poorly, conceding the first set 3-6. But it would only prove a minor blip. Driven by memories of old losses and the hunger to claim his place among the greats, Novak picked off the Briton in three sets of precise, methodical tennis to seal his first Paris slam and a career Grand Slam. Emulating old favourite and three-time champion Gustavo Kuerten, the Djoker would draw a heart with his racquet on the red clay. Speaking to the BBC after the final, he was overcome with emotion:
"It's a very special moment, the biggest of my career. I felt today something that I never felt before at Roland Garros, I felt the love of the crowd. I drew the heart on the court, like Guga, which he gave me permission to do. My heart will always be with you on this court."
It would be 2020 before Djokovic would make the title round of the French Open. In the intervening years, Austrian Dominic Thiem twice showed him the exit door. Sandwiched between the two defeats was a shock quarter-final exit to outsider Marco Cecchinato. In an underrated classic, the Italian exhibited style and steel to tip a nervy fourth-set tiebreak 11-13 in his favour to close out a memorable win. Cut to 2020 a timeless Nadal downed him in straight sets. From the get-go, Novak was on the back foot, caving under the leftie's aggressive shot-making. After bagging a bagel in the first set, the then 12-time champion would drop two more of sublime quality to ensure a 13th French Open!
Also Read: French Open 2022: Looking back at Rafael Nadal’s clay-court journey
2021 would bring Djokovic his second French Open and a career-affirming second Roland Garros win against old-fox Rafa. Yoked into another semi-final at the Phillipe Chatrier, Nadal would blaze into a 0-5 lead. Djokovic would recover, winning three games on the spin, before Nadal closed out the set 3-6. But with momentum on his side, the Serb began to find accuracy with his returns. Conjuring a 6-3 of his own the spiky Serb had the bit between his teeth. Holding off the 13-time champion's bullish charge, Nole pierced his spirit in a sapping third set, which went to a tiebreak. Sensing the kill, he was ruthless in the fourth, numbing Nadal 6-2 for a shot at the famous old trophy.
Staring down at him was volatile Greek Stefano Tsitsipas. The youngster, capable of electric shot-making, flew into a two-set lead against a clearly bewildered Djokovic. On the brink, the great master began to stir. Running through his expansive playbook, the Serb would fashion two fine sets, winning 6-3 and 6-2. Firmly in the groove, he would force Tsitsipas into an awkward corner in the decider. Serving at 5-4 down and with pressure mounting, Stefano went gung-ho, lashing returns to the Djoker back-court. Djokovic, for his part, kept feeding it back, displaying dogged defence before finding a return past the frizzy-haired youngster from the depths of the red clay. A 19th Grand Slam, sealed in typical style, would also make him the first man to win all four majors at least twice!