Let’s go back to 1984. A young left-handed American player named John McEnroe took the ATP tour by storm. He would embark on a journey not seen in the Open Era and run off 42 consecutive victories en route to the French Open final.
A 43rd straight victory seemed inevitable given McEnroe was up two sets and a break in the third set against a formidable opponent, Ivan Lendl. In usual McEnroe fashion, he threw a temper tantrum after hearing the click of a camera in the stadium stands. He would lash out at the photographer, and eventually proceed to lose the match in five sets. Truth is in my watching this old match last year, Lendl made some tactical adjustments that included using heavy topspin and hitting the ball cross court to McEnroe’s backhand. A one-handed backhand almost always proves ineffective against heavy topspin. All these factors brought an end to McEnroe’s spectacular run. McEnroe ended up finishing the 1984 season a remarkable 82-3. That record still stands to this day.
Fast-forward to 2011. Novak Djokovic started the season with confidence he could win the Australian Open. Rafael Nadal on the other hand had the spotlight on him as he was trying to become the first man to hold all four majors (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, US Open) at the same time, having won the French,Wimbledon, and US Open titles in 2010. Roger Federer flew under the radar with fans and critics speaking of his decline.
Nadal would go on to lose in the quarterfinals; Federer would go on to lose to Djokovic in the semi-finals; and Djokovic would go on to dismantle Andy Murray in straight sets in the finals. This run will become one that will always be remembered in tennis history. He would go on to defeat Federer three more times, and defeat Nadal in four finals, the latter two on clay. Going into the 2011 French Open, he needed to win the title to surpass Guillermo Vilas’ modern era record of 46 consecutive victories. Reaching the semi-final of the French Open meant Djokovic would surpass McEnroe’s record of 42 consecutive victories to start a season.
Djokovic was predicted to win the French Open over defending champion, Rafael Nadal. With Nadal being taken to his first ever five set match in the first round at the French Open by the big serving American John Isner and narrowly escaping a major upset, this reinforced why Djokovic was tapped to win the tournament. Djokovic on the other hand continued to maintain his incredible form. With each victory by Djokovic, McEnroe’s record steadily became one victory away from being replaced.
Then came the quarter-finals, which would allow Djokovic to tie McEnroe’s record. His opponent quit the day before the match secondary to injury. As fate would have it, Djokovic would get an extra day of play off, thereby needing to beat his semi-final opponent to tie McEnroe’s record. Meanwhile, Roger Federer was still flying under the radar. Until the semi-finals, Federer was the only player who had not dropped a set at the tournament. Still, no one talked about him being a potential champion. Additionally, given the fact that Roger had lost his previous three contests against Djokovic, nobody gave him a shot at beating Djokovic.
What would follow was a match considered one of the best in French Open history. Back and forth both players went, playing at their best. Federer was up two sets. The crowd was stunned but very supportive of Federer.
Djokovic fought back in the third set, eventually breaking Federer and taking the set. To the fourth set they went, and with darkness setting in over Stade Roland Garros, they played a tiebreak. Fittingly, Federer won the game with an ace. After 27 years, the French Open struck!! Federer held his right index finger high in the air as if to say “I am still the best.” For Djokovic, his chance at history was gone. McEnroe’s record would live in the history books for yet another year.
Federer would eventually lose the final to Nadal in four sets, but this year’s French Open was all about Novak Djokovic and his chance at making history by breaking John McEnroe’s record of 42 consecutive victories to start a season. There is something magical about the red dirt of Roland Garros. The irony is that the world was about to witness history while at the same time write off an all-time great from memory. We watched Federer show us why he is still a force to be reckoned with, and for Djokovic, as valiant as his effort was in trying to match and surpass McEnroe’s record, he will have a chance to begin a new streak of consecutive wins to start a season next year. In the meantime, Djokovic will start working on a new streak once Wimbledon comes along.
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