On the face of things, Sunday’s French Open final looks like a foregone conclusion. On one side of the net, the unheralded, understated, largely unrecognised Norwegian Casper Ruud. On the other, the game’s greatest champion Novak Djokovic.
You could probably spend all afternoon vox-popping the Roland Garros faithful – a well-informed if often fractious bunch – without finding a single Djokovic sceptic. And yet, there is one small reason for doubt.
In the interview room on Friday night, 22nd seed Alexander Zverev was asked if the state of the grand-slam leaderboard – which shows Djokovic tied with Rafael Nadal on 22 majors – was the worst possible start for Ruud. Did it not offer Djokovic the ultimate motivation?
Zverev expressed the opposite opinion. “I think it couldn’t be better [for Ruud], to be honest. Novak is one of the best players in the world, that’s for sure, but when you’re on the brink of history I think that adds a little bit of pressure.
“You remember the US Open final he had with [Daniil] Medvedev after beating me in the semis?” added Zverev. “The pressure, you know, we are all human. Novak is human. We all feel it. So I think for Casper, that’s the best scenario, to be honest.”
Zverev’s answer reveals the insight that only a professional can offer. Outside observers often exhaust themselves debating one player’s susceptibility to kick-serves, or who will win the backhand-to-backhand battle. But such details are irrelevant if your mindset is not right.
Take Friday’s semi-finals as an example. Zverev never really had a chance against Ruud because he came in carrying a thigh strain. And something similar could be said for Carlos Alcaraz against Djokovic – except that Alcaraz’s primary malfunction was in his head.
The young world No 1 came in feeling such extreme tension – the greatest, he admitted later, that he had ever experienced in a tennis match – that his body became wracked with cramp soon after the two-hour mark.
Djokovic is surely too wily a fox to self-sabotage in this manner on Sunday. But he will probably struggle to block out the massive stakes at play, and that is likely to make him tight at certain moments. Ruud, though a far inferior player, spoke good sense on Friday when he said that he needs to take advantage of the low expectations around him and play without pressure.
Zverev’s example of the 2021 US Open final is certainly relevant, because the real Djokovic never arrived on court that day. Playing to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to complete the calendar grand slam (all four majors in the same season), he was slapdash and erratic throughout, and eventually sobbed into his towel at the last changeover before Medvedev served out for the win.
At the same time, though, that final came at the end of a lengthy season in which Djokovic had tried – and failed – to win the Olympic title as well as all the regular events. He was not just anxious, but burned out as well.
This season, by contrast, he has played a relatively modest 30 matches in just over five months. Thanks to his rejection of the Covid vaccine, he has missed out on every American event since the Medvedev final.
According to the forecast, the scorching weather of the past fortnight will finally break on Sunday afternoon, so that this final could become the first match of the tournament to be played under a roof. Again, this would probably be good news for Djokovic. The most precise ball-striker in the game, he can sometimes grow frustrated by the swirling wind that always seems to gust around Court Philippe Chatrier when the roof is open.
In reality, though, Djokovic only needs to show up and be his true self. (Something he signally failed to do in New York on that peculiar night in September 2021.) Here is a man who spent his formative years scrapping away with three other giants of the game – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and, to a lesser extent, Andy Murray. Yes, Ruud is an admirable scrapper, and has a dangerous weapon in his heavily top-spin forehand. But he is simply not on the same level.
The relentlessness of those epic ‘big four’ derbies taught Djokovic how to manage the best-of-five-set format better than any other player. Today, even at 36 years old, he is still handing out lessons to the next generation.