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Persistence pays off for French Open champion Novak Djokovic

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Djokovic: I've waited a long time for this win (2:02)

Novak Djokovic is proud of his French Open win and thrilled to have achieved a career Grand Slam, but this accomplishment has humbled him, and he says he is truly "honored" to be listed among the tennis greats. (2:02)

PARIS -- When he started the first set slowly, it was hard to know if it was Andy Murray's performance or the weight of history shackling Novak Djokovic.

He was missing forehands he usually makes. He kept slapping balls into the net tape as if he was purposely aiming for it. He heard the fans at Roland Garros chanting his name from the moment he hit the court for warm-ups. They were as ready for this to be Djokovic's long-awaited coronation as French Open champ as Djokovic was.

And now he was creating doubts that his 12-year wait might stretch to 13.

But Djokovic's brilliant career has been defined by persistence. It's the trait that explains how Djokovic kept believing he could overtake all-time greats Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer years before he actually did -- back when they were drubbing the Serb the way he dominates the tour now.

And persistence explained how Djokovic shook off some early nerves and that brilliant start by Murray on Sunday and roared back to defeat the Scot 3-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4.

Djokovic now has 12 major titles, while Nadal has 14 and Federer 17.

If the Serbian-born star eventually does tie or overtake Federer's record total, his breakthrough at this championship will very likely remembered as the victory that legitimized the argument that Djokovic rather than Federer is the greatest of all-time.

Djokovic, who was 0-3 in French Open finals before Sunday, has been hearing for a couple years now that he needed to win this title to be in the conversation. But now he and Federer each have one Roland Garros title. And each of them achieved it without having to beat Nadal, a nine-time champion here. There's no shame in that.

But Djokovic has a superior career record against Nadal, Federer and Murray -- the top three players of their generation.

Djokovic distinguished himself from the other members of the Big Four in yet another way: He became the first man since Rod Laver to hold all four Slam titles at once. And he now moves on to defend his 2015 Wimbledon title in position for the first time in his career to win a calendar-year Grand Slam. Laver was the last man to do that, too, in 1962 and '69.

"I don't want to sound arrogant or something," Djokovic said, when asked about it, "but I really think everything is achievable in life."

Djokovic is proof of that. His determined journey from a difficult childhood in war-torn Serbia to the top of men's tennis has been full of obstacles that other champions haven't had to endure. Yet he remains one of the funniest, most upbeat players on tour, and a man who regularly characterizes experiences in terms of how they feed his soul or feelings of being loved.

After he'd finally won -- but not before struggling to control his emotions and staggering through the last few games -- he fell on his back on the court for a while and covered his face.

A few minutes later, he got up and used his racket to draw a heart in the red clay as he'd seen his Brazilian friend and childhood hero Gustavo Kuerten do once upon a time. And Kuerten, who was here watching from the stands, laughed and wiped a tear from his eye. Djokovic meant it as a homage. He said the two had spoken about it earlier in the week.

"I mentioned that to him even before that him drawing the heart on the court is for me personally is the most memorable moment that I have ever seen from Roland Garros," Djokovic explained. "It was something completely different. I asked him if I have that permission and honor, in case I win, to do that. So he gave me that permission."

Djokovic made sure in his postgame remarks to pay his respects to Murray, too. This was Murray's first passage to his first French Open final, and after breaking Djokovic's first two service games, it even looked like Murray just might win it. But Murray had spent five hours longer on court over the course of the tournament than Djokovic and faded badly after his encouraging first set.

By the third, Murray was overhead yelling to his box of supporters that his legs were shot. He was also bickering with the chair umpire about a heckler and griped about an overhead camera that he said was bothering him during his ball tosses when he served.

But what put Murray in bleakest mood was the idea that he's still chasing the rest of best. He's now been to eight Slam finals but won just two of them, the 2012 US Open and Wimbledon a year later.

"Obviously, the guys I have been around the last few years have made things difficult for me," Murray conceded. "I mean, I have been close-ish to winning all of the slams now, and unfortunately all of them have done it instead. But I guess I've got a few more years to try and do that and I think, you know, when I finish I will be more proud of my achievements, maybe."

Then just to show he hadn't given up yet, Murray reminded everyone that he is 2-0 for his career on grass against Djokovic, and he's looking forward to Wimbledon, which better suits his game.

But Djokovic is still the favorite in every tournament he enters.

The pressure is likely to be even higher when he arrives at the All-England Club in a few weeks on track to finish off the third leg of a calendar Slam.

But Djokovic also knows at 29, he is picking up steam just as the 34-year-old Federer and 30-year-old Nadal are battling injuries and slowing down.

This was Djokovic's sixth victory in the past eight Slams. Neither of them ever accomplished that, either.

"It's hard for me to reflect on what has happened before and what's gonna happen after," Djokovic said. "I mean, I'm just so overwhelmed with having this trophy next to me that I'm just trying to enjoy this moment. ... At the beginning, I was not glad to be part of [Federer and Nadal's] era.

"Later on, I realized that in life everything happens for a reason. Fortunately for me, I realized that I need to get stronger and that I need to accept the fact that I'm competing with these two tremendous champions."

Now both Federer and Nadal ought to be worried about him.

Novak Djokovic is nothing if not persistent. Those footsteps Federer and Nadal are hearing belong to him.