Djokovic's out-of-body experience
Novak Djokovic felt the love of Roland-Garros as he won his slam of slams - and reckoned it was almost as if his spirit had left his body as he created tennis history.
If you felt his performance in completing his slam of slams seemed out of this world, then perhaps Novak Djokovic’s breathless explanation of how he collected the Coupe des Mousquetaires offered the best reason why.
Because winning the French Open, explained the overjoyed Djokovic, had felt like “an out-of-body experience.”
As he homed in on the prize that had eluded him and taunted him for so many years, and with a convincing victory against Andy Murray seemingly within his grasp, the world’s best related the strangest feeling that started to overcome him on Philippe-Chatrier Court.
First, as he raced scintillatingly into a fourth set lead against Murray, he couldn’t stop himself laughing at his own “flawless” excellence. Then, while feeling no pressure, Murray started to fight back. And then fight some more.
“We're all humans, and arriving so close to this trophy like never before in my life, I felt it. I felt the tension and excitement, all the emotions,” Djokovic smiled, recalling how, while serving for the match a second time, he was struggling to finish his march on history at match point.
“It was a kind of out-of-body experience. I felt it very few times in my career where I’ve actually felt that my body was just on autopilot,” he mused.
“I don't even remember what happened. It's like my spirit had left my body and I was just observing my body fighting the last three, four exchanges, hoping that Andy will make a mistake.”
The Scot did err, of course, and Djokovic was happy to savour what he called the “most beautiful moment I have had in my career” as he hurled himself onto his back and into the red stuff before rising to draw a heart in the clay, the famous old ritual of his friend Gustavo Kuerten whenever he won at Roland-Garros.
Was it just a coincidence that, almost at that very moment, the sun came out for the first time in what seemed like the entire fortnight?
Suddenly, the enormity of what he had achieved really dawned. Djokovic has become just the eighth man - and the second oldest at 29 - to complete the career Grand Slam after Andre Agassi, Don Budge, Roy Emerson, Roger Federer, Rod Laver, Rafa Nadal and Fred Perry.
More than that, he had become only the third man, and the second since the great Laver 47 years ago, to hold all four Grand Slams simultaneously. Extraordinary.
“It's incredibly flattering to know that Rod Laver is the last one who managed to do that. There are not many words that can describe it. It's one of the ultimate challenges that you have as a tennis player,” reflected Djokovic.
“I'm very proud, very thrilled. But it's hard for me to reflect on what has happened before and what's gonna happen after. I'm just so overwhelmed with having this trophy next to me that I'm just trying to enjoy this moment.”
Yet, naturally, tennis was asking itself: how can the man who’s rewriting the 21st century game top this? Could he now go on and complete the ultimate - the calendar year Grand Slam? His answer offered a tantalising glimpse of the future.
“Well, I don't want to sound arrogant but I really think everything is achievable in life,” responded Djokovic, when asked about the prospect of emulating Laver’s 1962 and 1969 achievements.
“I felt today something that I never felt before at Roland-Garros. I felt the love of the crowd. My heart will always be with you on this court."
“Whether or not I can reach a calendar slam, that's still a possibility. But I don't think about it right now. Right now, I’m just trying to enjoy this experience of winning the trophy that I never won before.”
Nobody dared ask him too much more about the future but it was impossible not to reflect on what could be. If he completes the calendar Grand Slam, Djokovic will be alongside Nadal and Pete Sampras on 14 Slams by the end of the year. Then there’s only Federer, on 17, ahead of him.
Yet this was a day when you could honestly believe that while winning the French meant the world to him, winning the hearts of Roland-Garros was just as important.
“A lot has been going on in my mind ever since I arrived in Paris,” he said. “I felt like this year when I arrived that it's really different from any other year. The relationship and connection I had with fans, and everyone from security to ball boys, was just different.”
Sometimes, the pursuit of titles may have felt a lonely, friendless existence for Djokovic in finals, as the crowd roared for their blessed Roger or Rafa. But not today.
As Djokovic, soaking up the adoration in the sun, told his new Paris disciples afterwards: “I felt today something that I never felt before at Roland-Garros. I felt the love of the crowd. My heart will always be with you on this court."