Nadal back on top of the world after stroll to fifth French title

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The Independent Online

Rafael Nadal usually leaves the post-match tears to Roger Federer but the Spaniard wept uncontrollably here last night after reclaiming the French Open title from his greatest rival.

Nadal, who will also replace Federer as world No 1 today, won his fifth Roland Garros crown with a crushing 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 victory over Robin Soderling, the man who ended his 31-match winning run in Paris last year.

It was no surprise that the tears flowed as Nadal buried his face in a towel after a victory that completed a stunning turnaround in his fortunes. When he won the Monte Carlo Masters in April it was the Majorcan's first tournament success for 11 months, but he went on to become the first man to complete a clean sweep of all three Masters clay-court titles and has now become only the second man ever to win the French Open more than four times.

"It was very special today," Nadal said after his victory. "It was a very important victory for me, one of the most important in my career. The last year, after I lost here, has been very difficult. I worked a lot to be here and I was very nervous throughout the tournament."

Time will be on Nadal's side as he attempts to match Bjorn Borg's record of six victories here, provided he continues to successfully manage the knee problems that have dogged him in the past. Plenty more records could follow. Nadal has only just turned 24, but this was his seventh Grand Slam title and the 40th tournament win of his career.

Federer needed just one more week at the top of the world rankings to equal Pete Sampras' record of 286 weeks as No 1, but the Swiss faces a huge challenge to reclaim his position. Nadal, who matched his 2008 achievement of winning the title here without dropping a set, is now certain to remain world No 1 until after Wimbledon.

The likelihood is that the Spaniard will establish a substantial lead over Federer this summer. He has no ranking points to defend during the grass-court season, having spent two months out injured last summer, whereas Federer, the defending champion, can only drop points at Wimbledon.

Soderling, who lost in straight sets to Federer in last year's French Open final, rarely looked capable of repeating his victory of 12 months ago, though he pushed Nadal hard for a set-and-a-half. The key to the match was the way the two men played the big points. Soderling held eight break points but failed to convert any of them, whereas Nadal – who has the best record this year of any player in terms of defending break points – won four of his 12.

The warm and humid conditions probably favoured Nadal, whose defence was magnificent. In some rallies, Soderling hit half a dozen shots that would have won the point against most players.

Nadal chased everything, scurrying from corner to corner, and the longer the rallies lasted, the more likely he became to win them. Either Soderling would be forced into one big shot too many and make an error, or Nadal would convert defence into winning attack. There was as much support for Soderling as there was for Nadal, with cries of "Robin! Robin!" ringing around Court Philippe Chatrier as he repeatedly created opportunities, only to find himself repeatedly unable to take them.

The Swede spurned his first chance in the fourth game by hitting a backhand long and the punishment was immediate. Nadal won the only break of serve in the first set in the following game, when Soderling left a cross-court backhand pass only to see it land in.

Nadal seized even more momentum when he saved four break points in the second game of the second set. One of them summed up the match, Soderling hitting some huge groundstrokes but Nadal finding a way to return fire. The Spaniard eventually put up a lob, but he retrieved Soderling's smash and then turned the rally on its head, attacking the net and winning the point with a beautiful cushioned volley.

Soderling's spirits quickly sank and Nadal broke three times in a row to take the second set and a 2-0 lead in the third. The Spaniard secured victory after two hours and 18 minutes when Soderling put a backhand in the net. Nadal fell on his back in celebration, picked himself up to shake Soderling's hand and then sank to the floor again as the tears started to flow, though he recovered his composure in time to be kissed by Queen Sofia of Spain.

Nadal said the confidence gained from his clay-court campaign should stand him in good stead at Wimbledon, which begins in a fortnight. He will also play at this week's Aegon Championships at Queen's Club in London and plans to practise there this afternoon. "I would love to play doubles on Tuesday and I will play singles on Wednesday," he said.