French Open Takeaways: Novak Djokovic closes greatness gap

Novak Djokovic kisses the cup after defeating Stefanos Tsitsipas in the French Open Final. (Thibault Camus/AP)

It was two weeks of twists and turns, angles, drop shots, lobs, passes and formidable tennis on the red dirt of Roland Garros.

Novak Djokovic did the unthinkable, toppling the God of clay, Rafael Nadal, en route to yet another major.

The women’s field welcomed four first-time semifinalists and a stunning victor from the Czech Republic in Barbora Krejcikova.

Here are six takeaways from the 2021 French Open.

No. 19 from Novak

Novak Djokovic made history at Roland Garros, defeating Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-7, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 in the final to become the first man in the Open Era to capture all four majors twice.

It is also his 19th Grand Slam singles title, pushing him just one behind his great rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for most on the all-time list.

The trophy cabinet is now absolutely stacked. Djokovic possesses two French Open crowns, nine at the Australian Open titles, five Wimbledon Championship victories, and three US Open wins. He has also won every single Masters 1000 trophy possible.

While the groundstrokes, angles, variety and defensive abilities are all extraordinary, it’s perhaps the mental fortitude, though, that is his greatest strength of all.

Djokovic was unflinching, trailing two sets to love in the final to Stefanos Tsitsipas, who was in a terrific groove, pummelling forehands and playing intelligent, attacking tennis from the opening of the match. The world No. 1 though, as he often does, found another gear when needed, and changed the dynamic of the match.

With Wimbledon two weeks away, it is more than conceivable Djokovic could lock into a tie with Nadal and Federer on the grand slam tally. The ‘GOAT’ discussion is gaining more and more steam, and many pundits, rightfully so, are beginning to pick Djokovic.

Djokovic and Nadal play another titanic match

It was the 58th match between the two legends, a men’s tennis record.

It was also a spectacular, mesmerizing encounter — Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal went tit for tat, punishing groundstrokes at will for four hours and 11 minutes until Djokovic prevailed 3-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-2.

The loss dropped Nadal to a career 105-3 record at Roland Garros, a staggering 97.9 winning percentage. Djokovic is responsible for two of those three losses.

The quality again illustrated why this showdown is one of the greatest rivalries all of sport has to offer.

Fellow tennis greats like three-time grand slam champion Andy Murray were immersed in the epic encounter, tweeting out their support of the classic unfolding.

Following the victory, Djokovic called it his greatest ever performance at Roland Garros, and one of the top three matches he has played in his life.

“Each time you step on court with him, you know that you have to kind of climb Mount Everest to win against this guy here,” Djokovic said of Nadal after the marathon win.

Krejcikova completes a rare sweep

We had a piece of history in the women’s field from a name most casual tennis fans would likely have not familiarized themselves with heading into the event.

The Czech Republic’s Barbora Krejcikova, who was unseeded coming into the tournament, completed a remarkable fortnight of tennis, beginning with her first-ever Grand Slam singles title Saturday, as she defeated fellow first-time major finalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-1, 2-6, 6-4.

She then followed it up with the rare double — Krejcikova and partner Katerina Siniakova won the women’s doubles crown the following day, defeating Iga Swiatek and Bethanie Mattek-Sands 6-4, 6-2.

As a result, Krejcikova became the first woman to complete a Grand Slam double (a title in singles and doubles in the same year) at the French Open since Mary Pierce accomplished the feat 21 years prior.

The 25-year-old played brilliantly throughout the event, but especially seemed to gain significant momentum following her third-round upset of Elina Svitolina. She then toppled Americans Sloane Stephens and Coco Gauff, and defeated Maria Sakkari of Greece in one of the most compelling matches of the event, prevailing 7-5, 4-6, 9-7 to reach the final.

Her composure under pressure, the fluidity of her groundstrokes and effortless game style were in sublime form throughout, and she inevitably prevailed over Russian veteran Pavlyuchenkova to hoist the trophy.

Krejcikova dedicated her rare win to fellow countrywoman and former coach, Jana Novotna, who tragically passed away of ovarian cancer in 2017.

Novotna famously won Wimbledon in 1998.

First-time winners becoming the norm

The last six French Open championships have produced a maiden Grand Slam singles winner on the women’s singles.

If Iga Swiatek’s win at Roland Garros last fall was stunning, a title from Barbora Krejcikova would qualify as astounding.

She had never been past the round of 16 at a major, and in fact has never even qualified for a main draw at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

All of that of course will change. She now rises to a career-high ranking of 15 in singles and will be seeded at the All England Club in two weeks time.

Cinderella stories make headlines

Beyond Krejcikova’s breakthrough victory, there were many surprising firsts from several players on both sides of the field.

Tamara Zidansek of Slovenia had never won a match at the French Open, yet parlayed her surprise 6-7, 6-4, 9-7 victory over Bianca Andreescu in the first round into a deep run into the semifinals.

Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan made the second week of a major for the first time, propelled by a 6-3, 7-5 toppling of the legendary Serena Williams.

On the men’s side, 22-year-old Spaniard Alejandro Davidovich Fokina broke through into the quarterfinals, getting a surprise five-set win over Norwegian Casper Ruud in the third round.

Italian Lorenzo Musetti, still just 19 years of age and making his main draw debut at a major, advanced all the way to the round of 16, and also held a two sets to love lead over eventual champion Djokovic.

Canadians might prefer grass?

It was unfortunately a disappointing tournament for both Canadian men and women at the French Open. Ahead of the event, Denis Shapovalov pulled out due to a lingering shoulder injury. The timing could not have been worse, given Shapovalov had been playing well on the surface, reaching the finals of Geneva the week prior. Raonic bypassed the clay court season, leaving Montreal’s Felix Auger-Aliassime in the mix. He suffered a surprise opening round defeat to Andreas Seppi.

Expectations for Bianca Andreescu were understandably tempered ahead of Roland Garros, given the Mississauga, Ont., native played just two clay court matches ahead of the tournament. Still, she was defeated in the first round by eventual semifinalist Zidansek.

Leylah Fernandez did manage a win in her first round match, before falling to 23rd seed Madison Keys, and Canadian Sharon Fichman advanced the furthest in doubles, getting to the third round with partner Giuliana Olmos.

While the clay was unkind to the Canadian contingency, perhaps it will be a different script in the next block of the 2021 calendar.

Auger-Aliassime began the grass-court swing by making the finals of the Mercedes Cup in Stuttgart, while Shapovalov also played well, advancing to the quarters.

Here is to better tidings on the grass.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.