Rafael Nadal on clay remains the greatest challenge in tennis and yesterday the task proved beyond even Novak Djokovic, the world's best player and a man with history in his sights. As Djokovic's hopes of becoming only the third man to hold all four Grand Slam singles titles were washed away on another rainy day at Roland Garros, Nadal continued his rampage through the clay-court record books to claim his seventh French Open title.
Resuming the final with a two sets to one lead, play having been abandoned at 8pm the previous evening because of the rain-sodden court, Nadal took command with a break of serve in the opening game and went on to win 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5.
It was a final in which the quality of the tennis fluctuated wildly, but both men saved some of their best for last before Nadal secured victory without hitting a ball. It says much for the relentless pressure that the Spaniard applies that Djokovic double-faulted on the first match point. It was the third time in the match that he had dropped serve in such fashion.
In his moment of victory, Nadal sank to his knees before looking up to his entourage with an expression that combined joy, incredulity and relief. Toni Nadal, his uncle and coach, leapt into the air before the champion climbed into the stands to hug every one of his party of coaches, family and friends.
"This is a really emotional day, to win here win another time," Nadal said later. "Sure, the seventh is important because I am the player who has more titles here than anyone, but for me the important thing is just to win at Roland Garros, whether it's the first, second, third or seventh."
While there had been much at stake for Djokovic, there was arguably a greater load on the shoulders of Nadal, who would have slipped to No 3 in the world rankings if he had lost. The French Open was the last Grand Slam title the Spaniard held following Djokovic's all-out assault on the game's major honours and after losing to the Serb in the finals at Wimbledon, New York and Melbourne he had to win to avoid becoming the first man to claim an "anti-Grand Slam", of defeats in four successive finals.
Instead, the world No 2, who was playing in his fifth Grand Slam final in succession, made history of a different kind. He now holds the record for the number of French Open titles on his own (having previously shared the record of six with Bjorn Borg), an astonishing achievement given that he has only just celebrated his 26th birthday.
Nadal's 11th Grand Slam title leaves him behind only Roger Federer (16), Pete Sampras (14) and Roy Emerson (12), but it is his record on clay that almost defies belief. In 53 matches at Roland Garros he has lost only once, while his tally of clay-court titles (36) is bettered in the Open era only by Guillermo Vilas (45) and Thomas Muster (40). Since April 2005, he has played 221 matches on clay and he has lost just seven of them.
When it was pointed out that Borg retired at the age Nadal is now, the Spaniard said he hoped to continue "for a long time", provided he maintained his fitness, motivation and passion.
"That's my goal," he said. "I work hard every day. I wake up every day with enough motivation to go to practice and to keep improving. When that changes on too many days it will be the time to say: 'Goodbye, guys.'"
Nadal identified mental strength as his key quality. "That's one of the most important things, especially on clay, more than on other surfaces, because you have to run, you have to suffer sometimes, you have to play with more tactics, because you have more time to think, to do things. I have always been scared to lose. That's why I go on court every day against each opponent with full respect, knowing that you can lose or win.
"I think I've been very focused for the last eight years. Winning as much as I have on this surface is not because I played great every time. It's impossible to do that. But when I played only so-so, I was there 100 per cent mentally."
Nadal said he had been "very nervous" on Sunday night, after losing eight games in a row in conditions "much more favourable for Novak". But he was pleased with the way he played yesterday. "I played with much more aggression," he said.
Djokovic described Nadal as "the best player in history on this surface". He refused to criticise officials for calling off play the previous night or to blame bad luck.
Nevertheless, Nadal enjoyed more of the breaks. Sunday night's stoppage came at the right time for the Spaniard and Djokovic could point to some key moments on yesterday's resumption when fate dealt him a poor hand.
With a 2-1 overnight lead in the fourth set, the world No 1 went break point down in the opening game, upon which Nadal clipped the top of the net and the ball dropped lamely over the other side. Djokovic managed to retrieve it but he was hopelessly out of position and Nadal passed him with ease.
Serving with pace, Nadal dropped only three points in his first three service games of the day. He was one game from victory at 5-4 when Djokovic had to wait in his chair for a rain shower to pass, before serving to stay in the match.
The Serb held his nerve, but two games later Nadal forced a match point with three enormous forehands. As Djokovic was about to serve, a shout from a spectator forced him to start afresh. His rhythm disrupted, the Serb served a double fault to hand Nadal victory.
Djokovic said that he had not felt under any pressure to complete a "Novak Slam" of the four titles in succession. In failing to do so, he might be consoled by the fact that he is in good company.
In 2006 and 2007, Roger Federer went within one victory of winning a fourth Grand Slam title in a row. Who denied him both times? Nadal, the king of clay, of course.
Nadal in numbers
7: Rafael Nadal has now won the French Open a record seven times in just eight attempts, surpassing the previous mark set by Bjorn Borg. The Swede won the tournament at Roland Garros six times between 1974 to 1981.
52-1: The Spaniard has only ever lost one of his 53 matches at Roland Garros – to Robin Soderling in 2009.
11: Slams won by Nadal, equalling Borg and Laver. Federer has 16, Sampras won 14, Emerson 12.
5: Nadal and Novak Djokovic have met in five Grand Slam finals, Nadal has now won two, Djokovic three.Reuse content