For years, the ‘Big Three’ of men’s tennis – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic – have hoovered up grand slams, each providing their own reasons to be crowned as the greatest men’s player of all time.
Now, with Federer retired and Nadal injured, Djokovic has an opportunity to stake his own claim in that unending debate and win a record 23rd grand slam title on Sunday at the French Open, surpassing the mark he currently holds with Nadal.
Standing in Djokovic’s way is Casper Ruud, who has now reached three of the last five grand slam finals, including last year’s final at Roland Garros where he was dismantled 6-3 6-3 6-0 by Nadal.
If Djokovic can win on Sunday, he will also return to the top of the world rankings and become the first male player to win each grand slam tournament at least three times. Such pressure, however, is familiar to the Serb, he said after his semifinal victory.
“History is always something that’s hovering over me, but I’m very happy to be in this position to write history of this sport,” he said, according to the ATP Tour. “I’m just thinking about winning the next match.
“Pressure is always on my shoulders, so it’s not going to be different. But it’s part of my sport, part of my life, all that I do. I think that having pressure is a privilege. But it’s a source of motivation, as well. Great motivation to play well and to reach Sunday.”
It has been a relatively straightforward route to the final for Djokovic, as he has dropped just two sets – one against Karen Khachanov in the quarterfinals and one against the No. 1 seed Carlos Alcaraz in the semifinals.
That match against Alcaraz had been billed as a classic, but in the end, Djokovic coasted to victory after the young Spaniard suffered from cramp at the beginning of the third set, with the match finely poised at a set apiece.
The Serb has been imperious in grand slams during the last three years, a loss to Nadal at the French Open last year the only blemish at the majors in which he has been able to compete.
But lining up against such a dominant player is a familiar position for Ruud as he faces an opponent seeking to break or extend their record grand slam title total for the second consecutive year.
“Last year it was against Rafa, this year it’s against Novak, so what can you say? It’s two of the toughest players in history,” Ruud said after his semifinal victory, according to the Guardian. “I’ve got to be the underdog like today, playing without too many feelings, just try to enjoy.”
The 24-year-old Norwegian has never even won a set against Djokovic, losing all four of their matches, and that gulf ensures that he will walk onto court as the underdog, though he can now draw on the experience of two previous grand slam final appearances.
“It’s going to be tough, for sure,” Ruud said, according to the ATP Tour. “He’s playing for his 23rd. I’m playing for my first. So I’m going to just try to play without pressure and just try to enjoy the moment.
“I think that was my mentality last year (against Nadal) as well, and it didn’t go my way. Obviously, I would like to try to do better than last year. Let’s see if I have learned something from the two previous (major finals) that I played last year. It just feels great to be back.”
Despite coming into the tournament after a mixed start to the season, Ruud has found his form, winning against a top-10 player at a grand slam for the first time when he defeated Holger Rune in the quarterfinals, and dismantling Alexander Zverev in the semifinals.
That semifinal performance will galvanize Ruud ahead of the final, as he seeks to upset the odds and take a first grand slam title.