Sure, when Djokovic looks across the net in Court Philippe Chatrier during the French Open final on Sunday, he will see Casper Ruud trying to prevent him from earning a men’s-record 23rd championship at a Grand Slam tournament.
Neither Federer (who announced his retirement last year) nor Nadal (who is out since January with a hip injury and recently had arthroscopic surgery) will be at Roland Garros, racket in hand and ready to present a challenge, of course.
Still, it’s important to remember that the milestone Djokovic is chasing now is in many ways defined by his two great rivals. Entering the 2011 season, Federer owned 16 major championships, Nadal nine and Djokovic one. Just five years ago, Federer was at 20, Nadal 17 and Djokovic at 12.
Since then? Djokovic has collected 10 of the last 19 Slam titles and made clear his intention to keep adding to his total.
Federer stopped at 20; entering Sunday, Djokovic and Nadal are tied at 22. The only players in tennis history to exceed that number are Serena Williams, whose 23 are the most in the Open era, and Margaret Court, whose 24 came in part during the amateur era.
“I put myself, again, in a position to fight for another Grand Slam trophy. I’ve been very fortunate that most of the matches in tournaments I’ve played in the last few years, there is history on the line. I like the feeling. It’s a privilege. It’s incredible privilege to be able to make history of the sport that I truly love, and it has given me so much,” Djokovic said after eliminating No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz in the semifinals. “The motivation is very high, as you can imagine. There is one more to go, and hopefully (I’ll) get my hands on the trophy.”
Ruud will see what he can muster in an attempt to be the champion at a major for the first time.
“Is Novak the favorite? Yes, of course. There is no question about it," said Alexander Zverev, who has lost in the semifinals in Paris each of the past three years, including against Ruud on Friday. "He knows how it’s done. He knows how to do it. But Casper is playing great tennis. If I would have to bet money, maybe I wouldn’t bet on Casper too much. Does he have chances? Yes, he does. He’s playing amazing tennis and I think he deserves to be in the final.”
While this is Djokovic’s 34th appearance in a major final — tied with Chris Evert for the most by a man or woman — it will be Ruud’s third.
Ruud is 0-2 so far, and both losses came in 2022: against Nadal at Roland Garros, and against Carlos Alcaraz at the U.S. Open.
Ruud mentioned repeatedly that he will aim to avoid feeling pressure on Sunday.
“It’s just a matter of not thinking, like, I ‘need’ to win this match. ... This is a word that I try to sort of avoid. Obviously in the beginning of the tournament, that’s sort of what you feel more and what you think about more, like: ‘This is important to try to get this win and get going in the tournament,'” said Ruud, a 24-year-old from Norway who is coached by his father, Christian, a former professional player.
“But now I’m in the final. It’s been a great two weeks, no matter what happens on Sunday, and I’m going to, of course, give it my all,” Ruud said, “but sometimes you play your best tennis when you don’t think too much.”
He will see if he can devise a better way to attack the problems presented by Djokovic, a 36-year-old from Serbia.
They have played four times previous, twice on hard courts and twice on clay, and not only is Djokovic 4-0, but he has won all eight sets.
“I’m going to have to try to come up with a better game plan,” Ruud said, “and just know I’m going to have to play my best game — my ‘A’ game, my best level that I’ve ever played — if I want to have a chance against him.”