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The Winner is the Math

Enjoyment isn’t the right word, is it, for the feeling of watching that same thing happen again. After four-plus hours of spectacular tennis just now, Novak Djokovic has won the 2021 French Open over Stefanos Tsitsipas, 6-7, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4. I type it out in full because even if you didn’t watch, the numbers tell you everything. Stef had him and then very decidedly did not, and then it was over. I can’t remember a single shot that Djokovic hit; I only remember that once he went up a break in the third set, despite having been vastly outplayed up to that point and being down two sets to none, I knew that he would win. You did too, I bet. When you drop something it is not a prediction to suggest that it will soon hit the ground—it’s just math, which is what Novak Djokovic reduces an otherwise beautiful game to time and time again, so many times now that he can safely be called the greatest player to ever live.

If you were asked to describe him to someone, what would you say? It’s easy with the others: Federer glides and hits forehands and makes people wax philosophic about sport as art. Nadal offers an ideal foil to those traits, brutish and defensive and fiery. Djokovic distilled is—inertia? Attrition? A willingness to die slowly? It’s tougher to capture. His signature traits are instead spotlights on the seams of the game itself, in particular the fact that tennis has no clock. There is no garbage time here, and you can’t run the ball to sit on a lead. You have to step across an immovable line, and so here we are: we finally have a player who defines himself by making that line feel as far away on his opponent’s hundredth step as on his first, a player who has realized that a way to win is simply to force his opponent to keep stepping, knowing that because they’re human they will falter.

This is what happened to Stefanos Tstisipas today—he was a human trying to defeat the math. He played beautifully and bravely, as well as we could have hoped, well enough to beat pretty much anyone in the history of the sport with two notable exceptions. He varied his serve, and played to his exceptional strengths by forcing all-court rallies that required both lateral and vertical movement. He knew when to be aggressive and when to be patient; in the end, it felt like his problem was that he did not know how to divide by zero. No one does, because that’s the quintessential problem of Djokovic. He’s built himself into a player capable of ruling out every alternative answer until all that’s left is him.

Novak was not always like this. This remains for me the most fascinating part of his arc. We don’t talk anymore about how he used to quit a lot—remember that? He hated the heat, and while he never said so he also hated the other players, resorting to unflattering impersonations and sarcasm. He’s been heartily rooted against at basically every venue he’s shown up at. Lately he’s stopped bringing this up, but it’s hard not to notice how much energy he draws from the tiny tournament in Belgrade he makes a point of playing each spring, the one modest home crowd he ever gets. He’s had the same answer to each of these problems: become inevitable. If you hate the heat, become the fittest player on tour. If you hate the way they cheer for Roger, start thumping him, again and again and again. The crowds won’t like it but you can force them to clap.

To be clear, as it stands now the reason I believe Djokovic is the greatest of all time has nothing to do with resumes. It’s that if you ask partisans if they’d like to see their guy play against the other two in their respective primes, only one of those camps is enthusiastically asking when and where. We all just know, and it’s time to say it aloud. However, at this point the stats do agree: Djokovic is just one major behind Nadal and Federer, is winning the head-to-heads against both of them, has won each major twice now, and has dominated the Masters 1000 level. Critically, he’s also got two wins against Nadal in Paris and two wins against Federer at Wimbledon. Djokovic has now superseded the need for a crowd behind him—instead he's happy to show up at your place and quiet yours.

So, this interminable era marches on. We’ve reached what feels like a breaking point that come and go without us noticing, in that several exciting young players are peaking with nothing to show for it. Tsitsipas, Zverev, Medvedev—we know these players are supposedly destined for major titles, and they probably are. But be careful about asking when, because your head might start to spin. Let’s try it: who’s your pick at Wimbledon right now? What about at the US Open this summer? Then we’re back in Australia, where the guy I know you picked for those first two has won it nine times. Do you see what I mean yet? How everything falters but the math?


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