On the red clay of Roland Garros this Sunday, Novak Djokovic will stand with history at the face of his racket, after reaching the French Open final for the fourth time in five years.
Djokovic blitzed through his semifinal with 13th seed Dominic Thiem on Friday in a 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 rout, to once again come within touching distance of the only major he has yet to win.
In Sunday’s final, the world’s number one tennis player will meet world number two Andy Murray, but Murray has the opportunity to make history of his own.
The Scot will in fact be writing his name into tennis history books just by walking onto Court Philippe Chatrier just after Sunday lunchtime, as he will become the first British man to play a French Open final since Bunny Austin in 1937. Should he win however, he will surpass Austin’s losing effort to Henner Henkel and equal the feat of compatriot Fred Perry in 1935.
The first British man to win the French Open in over 80 years sounds even better and, for you real history buffs, only the third since the tournament began, with H. Briggs the inaugural winner in 1891.
Murray booked his place in the final with a four-set victory over defending champion Stan Wawrinka in his Friday semi, winning 6-4, 6-2, 4-6, 6-2. At 29, and by no means a clay specialist, Murray may well never have a better opportunity than this one to lift La Coupe des Mousquetaires. Yet at the same time, he could not have a more imposing challenge standing in his way.
Djokovic bested Murray in straight sets in Melbourne earlier this year to win the season’s first Grand Slam and if the Serb can repeat his Australian Open final win over Murray in Paris, the French Open title that has thus far eluded him will boost Novak’s standing amongst the all-time greats significantly.
The career Grand Slam is not the only piece of history that Djokovic stands to make this weekend. He can also become the first man in almost half a century to consecutively hold all four major titles, something that hasn’t been done since Rod Laver won them all in a calender year in 1969. As well as joining Laver on the very exclusive list of players to have completed a full set of Australian, French, Wimbledon and U.S. Open crowns (only seven men in history have managed that feat, including Novak’s rivals Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer) the 29-year-old would also tie Roy Emerson as the fourth most successful men’s player in the Open Era with 12 major titles.
In an era that is often described as ‘The Golden Age of Men’s Tennis’ and having had to compete alongside immortals Federer and Nadal for a number of years, for Djokovic to win 12 grand slam titles – and be placed in the top five men of all time – would be an outstanding achievement. Twelve would put him within two slams of joint-second Nadal and Pete Sampras – a feat he could possibly equal before the end of this year. And from that point, it wouldn’t be unthinkable that Djokovic could go on to overhaul Federer’s tally of 17 major titles before it’s all said and done.
For a long time, 29 was considered ancient for a tennis player. Djokovic is almost exactly the same age as Murray – a week younger in fact – but given his dominance over the rest of the field, including the Scot, Novak’s chances of adding to his Grand Slam tally beyond Sunday are deemed much greater. Given the Serbian’s holistic approach to his game and meticulously strict regimen, it’s realistic he could extend his domination of all surfaces for another 4-5 years. Federer, who turns 35 in August, is an example of how a modern player who looks after their body can extend their time at the top level deep into their thirties, even though the Swiss maestro is now beginning to show signs of wear.
With no breakthrough superstar on the horizon – the likes of Thiem, Nick Kyrgios and Milos Raonic operating league below Djokovic, Nadal and Federer when they were a comparable age – it could be that the biggest threat to the Djokovic period of dominance is in fact Murray.
Meeting in both of this year’s Grand Slam finals so far, we could be ushering into the Djokovic and Murray era – akin to the Nadal and Federer rivalry of the mid 2000s – with the next major on Murray’s favourite surface, grass, at Wimbledon later this month.
Djokovic – who this week celebrated 101 consecutive weeks as world number one – and Murray have always been rivals; their comparative age meant they crossed regularly as juniors and this year’s French Open final will be their 34th meeting as professionals on the men’s tour.
The Serbian leads their head to head 23-10, and 4-2 from their seven meetings thus far in major finals.
Murray did win their most recent meeting however, on clay last month in the Italian Open final.