No one in the game today does "match point down" better than the man they call Nole.
Great individual athletes assert their dominance by not having to be great most of the time. Tiger Woods led going into the final round of all 14 of his major championship wins. Roger Federer has only been pushed to five sets twice in his 16 Grand Slam final victories. By the time the greats near the finish line, they've left everyone else in the dust.
The exception, at least recently, is Novak Djokovic. After another improbable comeback from the brink in a Grand Slam match, it's safe to say that no one does "match point down" better than the man they call Nole.
Djokovic was match point down four times in the fourth set of his French Open quarterfinal match against Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Tuesday. Four times, the Paris crowd stood and roared, exhorting Tsonga to the final step across the finish line. Four times, Djokovic rose up to win the point and stay alive.
Djokovic eventually won the set in a tiebreak and steamrolled past the deflated Tsonga in the fifth set. The 6-1, 5-7, 5-7, 7-6(8-6), 6-1 win was Djokovic's 26th straight Grand Slam victory, and he is now just two wins from becoming the first man to win four Grand Slams in a row since Rod Laver did it in 1969.
Like Tiger before him, Djokovic's feat would be over two years, including last year's Wimbledon and U.S. Open and January's Australian Open. But that does not make his accomplishments any less remarkable, especially after all the times that the streak appeared to be over, until it wasn't.
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Djokovic's first great escape was perhaps his most impressive, coming back from two sets down to beat Federer at the U.S. Open last September. The Serbian was down 5-3, 40-15 in the fifth set, and Federer had two match points on his serve. Fed hit a blistering first serve deep to Djokovic's forehand on the first match point, and Nole wound up and smashed a forehand crosscourt that traveled faster than 100 mph and kissed off the line. It was perhaps the best shot under pressure in U.S. Open history.
Djokovic went on to win the game, the match, and the tournament. In Australia, he faced back-to-back five set marathons against Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal. Djokovic found himself tied 5-5 in the final set of both matches, wearily racing towards the finish line against an equally exhausted opponent. Like a cornered animal, the world No. 1 refused to die, winning the last two games of both matches. The victory over Nadal in the final was particularly stunning—down a break in the fifth set, Djokovic won five of the last six games by breaking Nadal's serve twice in 25 minutes.