Novak Djokovic has chiselled out another monumental triumph, digging deeper than perhaps ever before in his stellar career to fight back from two sets down and overcome final debutant Stefanos Tsitsipas for his 19th grand slam singles victory at the French Open.
The world No.1 had seemed curiously flat after his epic dethronement of Rafael Nadal two days earlier as the 22-year-old Tsitsipas, in his historic first final appearance by any Greek player, outplayed the world No.1 over the opening two sets on Sunday.
Yet the Serb, at 34, proved yet again why he is simply one the greatest players tennis has ever seen as he summoned up fresh energy and fight on a bitingly hot Paris afternoon to outlast a pretender 12 years his junior 6-7 (6-8) 2-6 6-3 6-2 6-4 at Roland Garros.
By the end, as the old master started to outplay the weary Tsitsipas to win a second French crown after his 2016 triumph, it really did resemble a serial champ in his 29th grand slam final against a wannabe in his first.
“Unforgettable matches, unforgettable moments for me, for my career, for my life, it wasn’t easy for me, both physically and mentally,” Djokovic said.
He also had generous words for the crestfallen Tsitsipas, saying at the victory presentation: “These are the kind of matches you learn from the most … and I definitely believe Stefanos is going to win many grand slams in the future.”
Djokovic’s incredible four-set semi-final win had taken him four hours 11 minutes and, eerily, the final was exactly the same length, even if it didn’t quite match the breathtaking quality of Friday’s masterpiece.
Yet it all set up the tantalising prospect of another milestone year for Djokovic as he became only the third man after Australian greats Rod Laver and Roy Emerson to win all four of the grand slams more than once.
He’s also now just one major title behind Nadal and Roger Federer, who both have 20 slams, and will next travel to Wimbledon halfway to achieving the calendar year grand slam, a feat only ever achieved in the men’s game in the Open era by Laver.
Yet, strangely, the Serb had never looked quite on his game even as he failed to serve out for the first set at 6-5 and then missed out on a set point in the tiebreak, allowing Tsitsipas to pounce.
Seeming distracted by his usually intense standards, Djokovic coughed up an immediate double, lost serve straight away and then could find no inspiration as the Greek powered ahead, breaking again for a two-set lead.
Djokovic, who had also taken a fall in the opening set when failing to chase down a drop shot, appeared to be tumbling out of the tournament.
But after a long bathroom break, he returned refreshed, apparently more invested in the fight, scrapping for his life in an 11-and-a-half minute fourth game, which he finally annexed on his fifth break point.
“He came back to me like a different player suddenly,” Tsitsipas noted.
After Djokovic had taken the third set, it was the Greek who called for the trainer to treat a hip blockage and Djokovic appeared to scent blood, racing into a 4-0 lead before levelling the match.
With his amazing record of winning 34 of his previous 44 five-setters and having five times won from a two-set deficit before, Djokovic was by now a hot favourite, tormenting Tsitsipas with drop shots, breaking him in the third game and looking physically the fresher.
He eventually served out for victory, rather nervously, as Tsitsipas saved one match point with a searing backhand but Djokovic then put away a smash for his triumph.
It made him the first men’s champion ever to earn two successful fightbacks from two sets down in the same grand slam, following his last-16 win over Italian Lorenzo Musetti.
“Novak, you continue to change the way we look at this sport,” as former champion Jim Courier told him at the presentation.