NOVAK'S OUT-OF-BODY EXPERIENCE

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Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

PARIS

Bill Simons

There is something miraculous about the thin man from the little country. Just minutes after Novak Djokovic prevailed to finally win his first French Open, just after he became – with legends Don Budge and Rod Laver – the third man to hold all four majors in one year, the golden sun at last shone on the red earth of Paris.

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Sure, many might say that tennis is easy. Just hit the ball over the net. But the tennis gods know otherwise. It’s a tough game – especially when you’re playing for history. Just ask the mighty Serena Williams, who now has stumbled three times in her quest to win a record 22nd major. And many a grand champion has come to this town thinking it will be a cakewalk – springtime in Paris.

But Roland Garros is a tough taskmaster. All that great icons like Kramer, Borg, Ashe, McEnroe, Connors, Becker and Sampras have came back with from this place are pretty postcards and clammy, clay-stained socks.

For years Djokovic suffered a similar fate. While of late, he had been edging into conversations on who is the best of all time, he never won the French. Roland Garros was his kryptonite. Rafa ruled. Then last year Novak fell to a zoning Stan Wawrinka. It was a crushing loss, but incredibly the French throng rallied to his side and gave him a heartfelt standing ovation that touched the man and accelerated his quest.

Everyone in tennis knew the biggest question in the men’s game this year would be whether Novak could at last prevail in Paris. Not surprisingly, the Serb felt the pressure and often seemed edgy during the clay season. In Rome he grabbed an ump’s arm, dropped an “F-bomb” and lost to Murray in the final. In Paris, when he spiked his racket, it nearly hit a linesman, and he struggled mightily in his fourth-round match.

Early in today’s final his prospects seemed grim. Andy Murray rebounded from a wretched first game and then pounced on Novak’s weak second serves, attacked his forehand and unleashed brilliant lobs. Nervous, off-balance and out of rhythm, Novak seemed adrift, while the Scot – who earlier in the tournament had cursed himself as an “absolute turnip,” seemed in absolute control. He won the first set, and in 26 previous Roland Garros matches when he prevailed in the first set he had won.

Then early in the second game of the second set, Andy got himself a break point. He seemed poised to put a stranglehold on the match. But no, Novak answered with a macho smash.

The match would never be the same. Murray’s level would soon fall. Was he feeling the effect of two long five-set matches early in the tournament? His legs began to wobble. His belief dipped, he no longer punished Novak’s forehand. In his heart does Andy know that Djokovic, who he has been playing since he was 11, has a game just like his, but Novak’s just a tad better in virtually all categories?

Djokovic finally began to serve with conviction. He cut down on his errors. Fierce rallies, soft drop shots, power on both wings – Novak’s game began to soar. A human slinky, his rubbery flexibility astounds. There is no more efficient player in the game. He slides with zest – even his skid marks seem precise. Rather quickly, what had promised to be a tight encounter devolved into a master clinic.

Novak’s eyes bulged. He pounced on Murray’s increasingly short shots. His angles were severe and unsparing.

As Leonardo DiCaprio looked on to what was once a titanic battle, Andy’s fans got a sinking feeling. Their ship was going down. The Serb was cruising. He drained all drama out of the stadium as he raced to a commanding 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, 5-2 lead.

The man was on the brink of history. But then the tennis Gods seemed to whisper in his ear, “Not so fast, Nole. After all your efforts over the years, we cleared your path this tournament. To get to the final, you didn’t have to play Nadal, Federer or the considerable Frenchman Jo-Willie Tsonga. But now, come on, let’s have some fun.”

Braveheart Murray, with nothing to lose, swung free and at last broke Novak. The Serb recalled the monumental moment. “[I] just started laughing,” he recalled. “I didn’t know I had that type of emotion…It’s like my spirit…left my body and I was just observing my body fight the last three or four exchanges…[It was a] kind of out of body experience…Everything starts from inside….[That’s what impacts] the way you perceive things in life…On the court I realized the importance of the moment…We were both exhausted. The last point was the moment where you get into this mode of autopilot.”

Novak continued, saying that “a lot has happened in my mind, in my soul. Just being filled with joy…Serving for a match double break up, laughing about the situation…[and being] overwhelmed with positive emotions and sensations…In order for me to win this trophy I had to go through this. To achieve big things in life…you need to push yourself above the limit…Everything is achievable in life…Today gave me so much happiness and fulfillment. I’m trying to grasp.”

So is tennis. After all, somehow a village boy from a distant Serbian mountain has not only lifted tennis to new heights, he even managed, according to some, to make the sun come out. And that, here in soggy Paris, is one heck of a miracle.

PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 24: Novak Djokovic of Serbia plays a shot during the Men's Singles first round match against Yen-Hsmen of Chinese Taipei on day three of the 2016 French Open at Roland Garros on May 24, 2016 in Paris, France . (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images