By Pritha Sarkar
PARIS (Reuters) – He is the tennis version of the Incredible Hulk and on Sunday Novak Djokovic made his closest rivals turn green with envy as he finally achieved something no man had accomplished for nearly half a century.
Playing what he described as “flawless tennis” over the last three sets of his 3-6 6-1 6-2 6-4 win over Andy Murray, Djokovic cracked his Roland Garros jinx at the 12th attempt — and fourth final there — to win the French Open.
It allowed the Serbian world number one to hold all four grand slam titles at the same time — a milestone that is so difficult to reach that it had not been done by a man since Australian Rod Laver won the second of his calendar Grand Slams in 1969.
In an era when it is tough to keep track of the countless records achieved by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal — who own 31 majors between them — Djokovic managed to complete a feat that was tantalizingly just out of reach for his rivals-in-chief.
“It’s one of the ultimate challenges that you have as a tennis player. I’m very proud, very thrilled,” he said on becoming the third man after Don Budge and Laver to hold the Wimbledon, U.S., Australian and French Open titles simultaneously.
Federer had two attempts at completing four in a row — in 2006 and 2007 — but each time he was thwarted in the French Open final by Nadal.
The Spaniard similarly arrived at the 2011 Australian Open as the holder of three grand slam titles but fell in the quarter-finals.
Despite all their success, Federer and Nadal, who are among eight men to have completed a career grand slam, never managed to win the Australian-French Opens back-to-back.
With Djokovic having achieved that benchmark, he is well placed to complete something no man has ever achieved — the Golden Slam of four majors and Olympic gold in the same year.
So is that something that can be done?
“I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I really think everything is achievable in life,” said Djokovic, who has now contested six successive grand slam finals, winning five.
It certainly is a possibility because nine-times French Open champion Nadal, having struggled with injuries, is no longer the force he was, while 34-year-old Federer was a no show at the French Open after failing to recover from a back problem.
That has left world number two Murray as Djokovic’s closest challenger. But with the Briton having a 2-5 win-loss record against the Serb in major finals, Djokovic knows he has a mental hold over Murray, who is just seven days older than him.
The world number one conceded, however, that he would not be the player he is had it not been for his rivals.
“Nadal and Federer were so dominant in the sport when Andy and myself came into the mix. At the beginning I was not glad to be part of their era,” said the 29-year-old.
“Fortunately for me I realized that I need to get stronger and that I need to accept the fact that I’m competing with these two tremendous champions. Everything was uphill from that moment on.”
Things have certainly been on the up for Djokovic as he has now contested 20 grand slam finals, winning 12.
He also has a better head-to-head against all three of his Big Four rivals. He leads Federer 23-22, Nadal 26-23 and Murray 24-10.
“These two guys, and Andy as well, have helped me to become a better player and helped me achieve all these things,” said Djokovic.
“The rivalries that we have are important for the sport, and in one way or another you try to compare yourself to them and what they have achieved before.”
While Federer (17 majors), Nadal and Pete Sampras (both 14) still top Djokovic in the list of all-time grand slam title holders, it is not inconceivable that within a few years, the Serb will have left everyone in his wake.
(Reporting by Pritha Sarkar, editing by Ken Ferris)