Nadal wins his first grass title after a thriller

What a shame we have to wait another week for Wimbledon. While Roger Federer, champion for the last five years at the All England Club, was winning his 59th match in succession on grass to lift the Halle title in Germany yesterday, Rafael Nadal won a gripping battle between the world No 1's two greatest rivals. The Spaniard beat Novak Djokovic 7-6, 7-5 to win the Artois Championships, his first title on the surface.

Winning the French Open and Wimbledon is the hardest task in tennis but Nadal, runner-up to Federer on Centre Court for the last two years, will have every reason to believe he can become the first man to achieve it since Bjorn Borg in 1980.

By winning here the four-times champion of Roland Garros has written his name on an honours board that features many of the greatest names in the history of grass-court tennis. Nadal is the first Spaniard to win an ATP grass-court title for 36 years (Manuel Santana in 1966 was the last Spaniard to win Wimbledon) and the first French Open champion to win here in the 30-year history of Artois sponsorship, which ended with this year's event.

If the victory sent a clear message of intent to Federer, it was also an important signal to Djokovic, who 10 days ago would have replaced Nadal as world No 2 had he won their French Open semi-final. Although the 21-year-old Serb had every reason to be pleased with reaching his first final on grass, he knows that Nadal retains the edge over him.

"I thought winning here after the French Open was almost impossible," Nadal said after taking his sixth title of the year and the 28th of his career. "The tournament here was very tough, with some of the best players in the world. The draw was really hard, but I've had a very good week."

The 22-year-old's victories here over Djokovic, Andy Roddick and Ivo Karlovic have shown how much his grass-court game has come on this year. Both his serve and volleys have improved, but an even more telling change has been in the way he constructs his rallies. The best clay-court players tend to play full-out on every point on their favourite surface but Nadal, his sliced backhand an increasingly useful weapon, has learned that mixing subtlety with power can be effective on a surface where the ball can stay so low.

If the win underlined Nadal's grass-court credentials, it also emphasised the changing nature of the game on this surface. Tennis on grass used to be all about serving and volleying, with lengthy rallies as rare as Spanish rain. However, as the courts have slowed, players' athleticism has improved and rackets become more powerful, so the traditional British game has become increasingly similar to that played on every other surface.

Who would have thought in the not-so-distant past that a three-set French Open final on clay would last an hour and 48 minutes – the time it took Nadal to beat Federer in Paris eight days ago – and a two-set final here on grass would take two hours and 15 minutes?

Nadal and Djokovic played almost exclusively from the baseline, moving forward only to retrieve drop shots or when they thought they could be certain of the quality of their approaches. Even the latter often proved perilous, particularly for Djokovic, who was caught out several times as Nadal hit scorching passing-shot winners.

Modern grass-court tennis may not be the same game that Dan Maskell swooned over for the BBC, but try asking any of the capacity 7,000 crowd who witnessed this final whether the match lacked anything. The quality of the play, particularly in the first set, was outstanding, the players pounding each other with thunderous ground strokes only to see them returned with interest.

Even when the finalists fell they usually got up to resume the rally. On one breath-taking point Nadal slipped but, with his knees still on the ground, managed to swing his racket at the ball and very nearly hit the most remarkable winner of the day.

Although Nadal had a break point in the opening game, Djokovic got off to a flier. The world No 3, immediately finding his range, went 3-0 up and had a point for 4-0, only for Nadal to break back in the fifth game. The rest of an enthralling set went with serve until the Spaniard won a tie-break of the highest quality.

Djokovic made an early mini-break before Nadal levelled to 3-3 after a wonderful point. Djokovic seemed to have done everything right, manoeuvring Nadal out wide to his backhand and then volleying towards the other corner, but the Spaniard flew across the court to whip a superb forehand pass down the line. Even Djokovic joined in the applause. Nadal saved a set point at 5-6 with a wrong-footing forehand and at 7-6 took the set when Djokovic netted a forehand return, upon which he hurled his racket to the floor in frustration.

Breaks were exchanged early in the second set before Djokovic mounted a bold defence of his serve at 3-4. From 15-40 down, Nadal having created two break points with a fine cross-court backhand, Djokovic served his way out of trouble.

An uncharacteristically loose Nadal service game – the Spaniard had been broken only once en route to the final – left Djokovic serving for the set at 5-4, but two poor backhands from deuce handed the initiative back. Nadal held serve to lead 6-5 and from 30-30 in the next game Djokovic finally faltered, hitting a routine forehand volley beyond the baseline and then playing a poor drop shot before Nadal secured victory with a thumping overhead.

Nadal flew back to his home, Mallorca, after the match and will return to prepare for Wimbledon on Wednesday or Thursday. Asked how he would spend his time, he replied: "Golf tomorrow morning. I don't know about the afternoon. I just want to spend some days at home. I don't want to practise at home. I've had enough, don't you think?"

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