How Novak Djokovic won the crowd, then his historic French Open

The Big Four is now a Big One.

While Roger Federer tries to overcome the inexorable effects of age, Rafael Nadal attempts to magically heal the body he’s given such a pounding over the past decade and Andy Murray is failing his entrance exam (again) to get into the group, Novak Djokovic — the most dominant player in tennis for at least the last three years — won his first French Open on Sunday, defeating Murray 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 to hoist the Coupes des Mousquetaires. His fourth French Open final was the charm.

Djokovic not only capped the career Grand Slam (joining Rod Laver, Andre Agassi, Federer and Nadal as the only men to do so in the Open era) but he’s now won four-straight majors — the Nole Slam if you will — something no one, not Federer, not Nadal, has accomplished since Laver in 1969. He’s also become the first man to win the first two legs of the Grand Slam since 1992 and only the fourth in history, setting up another summer of tennis’ great chase. It was also his sixth title in his last eight Slams.

So, you know, not a bad little Sunday on the outskirts of Paris.

After dropping the first set to a firing Murray (an ominous sign for Djokovic – the Scotsman had never defeated Novak without winning the opener), the Serbian saved a break point in the opening game of the second set and never looked back, cruising to win the next three sets, with only a hiccup while serving for the title at 5-3 as a setback.

It’s said that Roger Federer always plays a home game. On the other hand, Novak Djokovic is always on the road. He always was treated like "new money" by the tennis crowd. He was neither as graceful as Federer nor as tenacious as Nadal. The early troubles in his career (retiring from matches because of heat or injuries that may or may not have existed) dogged him for far too long. He’s long been tolerated, neither loved nor hated. It was odd, though: Who else gets to double-digit Grand Slams and becomes a model citizen of tennis and sport but can’t outrun an immature past?

There was a shift in that perception Sunday. For the first time in his 20 Grand Slam finals, Novak Djokovic was the people’s choice, a development that clearly buoyed the spirits of the world No. 1 while also affecting the fragile on-court mental state of his opponent. Indeed, even during his first-set win, Murray was busy shouting at a French reporter who had infiltrated his player’s box.

Even before he had a break at 3-1 in the fourth, the crowd still chanted "Nole," at a time when most fans just want a fifth set to get their money’s worth. 

What changed? Why were 15,000 Parisians on Team Djokovic? Crowds are fickle in general. Federer wasn’t immediately beloved. The French took some time to warm to Rafael Nadal even as he was dominating the tournament like no one had before.

Djokovic had turned a corner in the eyes of the crowd. Perhaps it was the outpouring of support and his touching reaction to the ovation he got after losing last year’s final to Stan Wawrinka or maybe it was his jovial antics during his run to the title this year (donning a fisherman’s cap, cheekily stealing a fan’s umbrella, using ball kids to help him thank the crowd after matches). The encouragement was near universal (or sounded like it) Sunday, so much that the famous, sing-song, soccer "Ole, Ole" chant was replaced with "Nole, Nole, Nole, Nole!"

The crowd didn’t help Djokovic dictate pace or force Murray to hit the ball from two feet behind the baseline. It didn’t help him slide to balls he had no business reaching or forcing Murray off-balance, unlike the immovable pillar he’d been in the first set. It didn’t smack return winners or keep Djokovic’s composure as the finish line got close, but never so close it was inevitable. It was a little extra, though. When Djokovic drew a heart in the clay after his win, it was no empty gesture. He had the title he’d wanted all his life but needed for the last five years, when tennis immortality was on the line.

There will be plenty of time to discuss what’s at stake over the next 18 months for Novak Djokovic. The Grand Slam. Getting six more majors to pass Federer for the all-time lead. Hanging around No. 1 for another two years to beat Federer’s record in that category, too. All seem inevitable right now and, with a 30th birthday that’s still 11 months off, maybe they are. Then again, tennis players go from invincible to mortal without much warning.

Sunday wasn’t about the future, however. It was about the past and the present. It was about Novak Djokovic solidifying his place in the annals of tennis history alongside the greatest players the sport has ever seen.

And he’s not done yet.