For nearly a decade — from 60 BCE to 53 BCE — the First Triumvirate created a titanic alliance that dominated the Roman Republic. Its political influence and military unified an unstable Republic rotting with moral decay, eventually transforming the government. Cassus was the oldest and wealthiest, amassing political power after putting down a slave revolt in 73 BCE. Pompey earned early acclaim as a young general, serving and succeeding during a period of civil war from 84–82 BCE. Together, Cassus and Pompey were named co-consuls of Rome in 70 BCE. Yet, it was the third member of the First Triumvirate who rose above the others. Julius Caesar needed time to become the notable figure the world knows him as today, but evolved into the most powerful of the ancient world’s first Big Three. Nowadays, Big Three is a term synonymous with athletics. Truly dynastic teams often have a supremely talented trio that leads them to glory. But individual sports rarely produce multiple marvels in the same era able to sustain their respective dominance. Men’s Professional Tennis is the outlier. Each member of the modern-day Triumvirate of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic has spent time on the throne. The latest is Djokovic, who won the French Open on Sunday to capture his 19th singles title. Although he is still one away from Federer and Nadal (who each have 20), Djokovic proved this weekend that his dominance, like Caesar, is distinct.
In the last major military engagement of the Gallic Wars, Caesar defeated the Gauls at the Battle of Alesia in 52 BCE. It was arguably the apex of his military career as, according to historian Paul K. Davis, it established “Roman dominance in Gaul for the next 500 years.” However, before the penultimate battle of the Gallic wars, Caesar suffered a setback. Before capturing Alesia, Caesar was beaten at the Battle of Gergovia, losing in an all-out assault. It was his first defeat as a general. Instead of letting embarrassment influence reckless action, Caesar altered his strategy at Alesia to starve out his opponents. His army spent a month building 25 miles of trenches and moats before eventually laying siege to the fort. Overwhelmed and malnourished, the Gauls had no choice but to surrender. Caesar was victorious and continued on his path into history.
Djokovic has not needed to rely on siege warfare to achieve his reputation, rather it is his reaction and strategy that is paramount. He has always been a first-rate defender and perhaps the best at moving laterally, on any surface. Though his serve has never been as powerful as an Andy Roddick or John Isner, it is still effective and compliments a terrific array of groundstrokes. Rallies are always dangerous for his opponents because the odds of winning a point get slimmer with each ensuing stroke. While Federer is applauded for his prevailing longevity and Nadal for his powerful flair, Djokovic’s primary asset is his consistent versatility. He could not maintain the №1 ATP ranking for 325 weeks (most all-time) without figuring out different ways to beat his opponents. Appropriately, at Rolland Garros, he maneuvered around two logjams to earn his Grand Slam.
In the semifinals on Friday night, Djokovic went down 5–0 in his opening set against Nadal. After dropping it, 3–6, things looked eerily reminiscent of their last meeting at the 2020 French Open final, a straight-set win for Nadal. Despite their recent history, Djokovic evened the match in the second set, 6–3, and then won a pivotal 1 hour, 33-minute, third set, 7–6 (4), which included a 23-stroke point, drawing a standing ovation. Having repelled Nadal’s best chance to take control, Djokovic swiftly won the fourth set, 6–2, handing the King of Clay just his third career loss at the French Open. It was not an overstatement for Djokovic to liken the match to climbing Mount Everest.
He’d need to scale Annapurna to win the title.
On Sunday afternoon, Djokovic quickly fell behind to the up-and-coming 22-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas. Djokovic lost a close first set 6–7 (6) and then dropped the second set, 2–6, in disappointing fashion. Something was off. Djokovic did not look animated. There was no grunting when he sent back a volley. He took an awkward spill in the first set after going for a drop shot, smearing his pearly white polo with powdered clay dust. The favorite was silent. Then, Djokovic reminded the audience he was also deadly, donning a fresh, blood-red shirt to start the third set. He began starving out his opponent, opting for longer rallies that moved Tsitsipas all around the court. Djokovic brought his foe to the net with a bevy of drop shots and sent repeated strokes towards the Tsitsipas’ backhand. He took away the reckless abandon Tsitsipas played with early on — 18 winners in the first set. Djokovic challenged him defensively, allowing his opponent to beat himself. Tsitsipas made 11 unforced errors in the third set, opening the door for Djokovic, who won it 6–3. The fourth set was similar as Djokovic broke serve twice — he only did it five times in the match — and equalized, 6–2.
In the final set, Djokovic slowed the match down even more with his serve. After averaging 175 kmph on his first serve throughout the French Open, he lowered his velocity to the 140s midway through the fifth set (his slowest serve was 133 kmph). It was a gutsy choice, but a necessary one. An all-out attack would have played into his enemy’s hands. Djokovic noticed Tsitsipas had been feasting on his second serves, winning nine of 12 points in the opening set. Instead of charging, the savvy veteran drew the eager youngster into his preferred arena. Djokovic served just one ace in the fifth set, winning 20 of the 21 points on groundstrokes. He took his time and leveraged his endurance and agility into another service break, before finishing the four-hour, 11-minute match, 6–4.
With possibly a career-best set of victories at the 2021 French Open, Djokovic became just the sixth player to rally from down two sets in a Grand Slam championship match. He is now halfway to a Grand Slam sweep (winning all four majors) and can complete the Golden Slam (all four titles, plus the Olympic Gold), something only Steffi Graf achieved in 1988. Yet, even if he does not manage the all-time task, Djokovic has made his point. At age 34, Djokovic is younger than Nadal (36) and Federer (40) but is already the most accomplished. His semifinal win over Nadal at Roland Garros increased Djokovic’s lead in their series to 30–28, and he owns the head-to-head advantage against Federer as well, 27–23. Djokovic is now the only man to have won each Major title twice and has won seven majors since his 30th birthday. He does not look like he is slowing down.
The First Triumvirate changed the political landscape of the Roman Republic just as the modern-day Big Three reshaped men’s tennis. It is a different game than 20 years ago due to the direction Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal have taken the sport. The trio has shared the spotlight and each has claimed it for themselves. Yet, Djokovic has demonstrated a different level of dominance. Just like Caesar, he began behind his peers. In 2011, Djokovic had one title to his name. A decade later, he has nearly overtaken his competition. Djokovic may not have the total Major titles record (yet), but it looks inevitable. The same recognition of inevitability on the faces of Nadal and Tsitsipas as they watched Djokovic drag himself back to win the French Open. The same feeling Cassus and Pompey had while watching Caesar climb through the ranks of Rome.
This weekend at Rolland Garros, he came, he saw, he conquered.