Novak Djokovic’s long march toward a Roland Garros singles title has involved many close calls. Consider that Novak was runner-up at Roland Garros in 2012, 2014, and 2015. His chase for this title was halted in the semifinal round in 2007, 2008, 2011, and 2013. Novak also posted quarterfinal showings at Roland Garros in 2006 and 2010. Over 11 years, Novak Djokovic has been the quarterfinal round or further 10 times. In 2016, Novak Djokovic now has a well-deserved Roland Garros singles title.
He now also has 12 career majors and a career Grand Slam. Most impressively, Novak is the reigning champion at all 4 Grand Slams. I will write more about this later this week, but I think this is the greatest single accomplishment in the history of men’s tennis. For now, I want to focus on the match that made it happen.
Set 1 – Andy Murray wins 6-3
Murray came out somewhat tight and got broken at love. The French crowd was in Novak’s corner, and this match looked to be off to a perfect start for the world #1. Novak also seemed tight and lost 4 straight games. Murray was serving well, cracking his ground strokes, and retrieving with defense to offense shots. Murray won the first set, and Djokovic looked unhappy. An overrule on a seemingly missed Murray first serve that resulted in a point for Murray rather than a let may have helped Djokovic work past some nerves as he was angry with the umpire at the end of the set. Anger is not an ideal emotion on the tennis court, but anger is better than feeling nervous.
Set 2 – Novak Djokovic wins 6-1
Stats were being thrown around that both of Murray’s Grand Slam victories came after he took the first set and that Murray had never lost a match at Roland Garros after taking the first set. Novak started with a hold that involved saving a crucial break point. He then broke Murray, and suddenly the world #2’s momentum was seemingly halted. This may be something Murray can work on in his rivalry with Djokovic. Mental pressure tends to lower one’s level of play. By dropping serve so quickly in the second set, Murray never let scoreboard pressure build for Djokovic. Nole largely rolled in this set and by the end of the second set his forehand had Murray in deep trouble.
Set 3 – Novak Djokovic wins 6-2
Novak’s forehand, return of serve, use of drop shots, and superior court positioning dominated Murray. At this point, scoreboard pressure was placed clearly upon Andy Murray’s shoulders. Djokovic simply played an airtight set that put him 6 games away from the Roland Garros title.
Set 4 – Novak Djokovic wins 6-4
Djokovic broke Murray to open the set. Nole followed this up with a series of strong service games. With Murray serving at 2-4, Djokovic went for the jugular and found it. An insurance break and 5-2 lead left Novak on the doorstep of history. For the second time in the match, mental stress began to pull Novak’s level down. His serves were not effective and Murray broke for 3-5. Andy did what he was supposed to do and held serve to make the set 4-5 as Djokovic entered a long changeover. Novak needed 3 match points in a deuce game to end the match, but Djokovic closed the deal in his second attempt at serving for the title.
— ATP World Tour (@ATPWorldTour) June 5, 2016
Why Novak Won
With the exception of Murray’s overhead and first serve, Djokovic does everything on the court slightly better than Murray. Each man returns, moves, and hits backhands at the very top level of what is found on tour. Novak and Andy engage in similar patterns for winning points. Novak being slightly better than Andy in so many facets is one thing. A lack of clear contrasts makes Murray have to find a way to create mismatches that simply don’t exist in most points. Both players can establish their desired style of play versus the other, but even Murray’s A game in his comfort zone is not good enough to beat Novak’s A game in his comfort zone. Therefore, Novak places a pressure on Murray to move out of Andy’s comfort zone in order to win. That sort of pressure is hard to beat in a 2 of 3 set match. Over 4 or 5 sets, Novak is typically going to have Murray’s number.
Novak must be praised for his mental ability to hit reset after dropping the first set in a championship match for a title he wanted badly. Novak also should be praised for his preparation. How much more solid are his serve and touch at the net since bringing Boris Becker onto his team? How strong are his fitness and flexibility? What pressure does every opponent of Novak encounter due to Djokovic’s game having no obvious weaknesses? All of this means today’s victory was years in the making.