Only seven days ago Rafael Nadal insisted that he was not playing well enough to win his sixth French Open title but the Spaniard yesterday delivered a performance worthy of his reputation as the greatest clay-court player in history. In beating Roger Federer, his long-term rival, 7-5, 7-6, 5-7, 6-1 in a pulsating final, Nadal won his 10th Grand Slam title and kept hold of his world No 1 ranking.
The two finest players of recent times gave the tournament the climax it deserved. It was Nadal's fourth victory out of four against Federer in Roland Garros finals and was much closer than his third, in 2008, when the Swiss suffered the most crushing defeat of his career. Although neither man quite scaled the heights they have in some of their previous meetings, they provided rich entertainment in a contest that featured frequent shifts in momentum.
Nadal, his aura of invincibility on clay having been dimmed by two defeats to Novak Djokovic in Masters Series finals last month, had dropped 77 games en route to the final, more than in any of his previous campaigns. However, the Spaniard had been improving throughout the tournament and saved his best for last. Nobody can turn stonewall defence into stunning attack quite like the Spaniard, who has now won 45 of the 46 matches he has played here.
Federer, who had ended Djokovic's 43-match unbeaten run in the semi-finals, put faith in his attacking game. The Swiss tried to keep Nadal on the retreat, which enabled him to use regular drop shots, but the world No 1 eventually wore his man down with the sheer force of his game. As Federer sensed the need to go for bigger and bigger shots, so his mistakes multiplied.
Nadal is now only the second man, after Bjorn Borg, to win the French Open six times. It is an extraordinary feat for someone who is just three days past his 25th birthday, though, remarkably, he was one day older than Borg was when the Swede claimed his sixth title here. Only six players can better Nadal's haul of Grand Slam crowns and only Borg reached double figures at an earlier age, 24 years and 30 days.
The all-time list of Grand Slam champions is headed by Federer, who has won 16. The Swiss had shown wonderful resilience to come back and play in his first Grand Slam final for a year and a half, but this brought reaffirmation of the hold Nadal has over him.
Federer has appeared in a record 23 Grand Slam finals and six of his seven defeats have been against Nadal. The world No 3's only two Grand Slam final victories over the Spaniard were at Wimbledon in 2006 and 2007 – which remain Nadal's only two defeats in his 12 Grand Slam finals.
There was no doubt who the crowd wanted to win. Nadal, who had to win to prevent Djokovic taking over at the top of the world rankings, is a popular champion, but the Parisians have always loved Federer for his elegance and style. On a muggy afternoon, when the forecast rain arrived only for a brief period, a packed Court Philippe Chatrier quickly warmed to a dramatic contest.
If there was a turning point it came towards the end of the first set, in which Nadal had made a nervous start, frequently missing the target in the face of Federer's aggression. Federer broke serve in the second game, having won the first two points with mis-hits, and went on to consolidate his advantage.
When Nadal served to stay in the set at 2-5, Federer forced a set point with an array of attacking shots. The crowd erupted in appreciation and redoubled their cheers when Federer hit what they thought was a winning drop shot on the next point, only for the umpire, Pascal Maria, to inspect the mark and rule that it had missed the line.
That escape was the fillip that Nadal had needed. He hit a service winner on the next point and then won the game with a superb backhand cross-court pass, his best shot of the match so far. Until that point the chants of "Roger! Roger!" had drowned out the Spaniard's supporters, but for the first time the sound of "Rafa! Rafa!" rang around the stadium.
The transformation in Nadal's game was immediate. The Spaniard appeared to rediscover all his old confidence and began to cover the court in the way that only he can. Federer, finding it all but impossible to get the ball past him, was tempted into playing too many big shots as Nadal levelled the score at 5-5. When Federer served in the 11th game Nadal hit two sensational counter-attacking forehand winners on the first two points, greeting the first with a celebratory leap into the air, and went on to break for the second time in a row before serving out for the set.
By the time Nadal had taken a 2-0 lead in the second set he had won seven games in a row. Federer broke back to level at 4-4, only to drop his serve yet again in the next game. When Nadal served for the set at 5-4 and deuce, having just squandered a set point, the rain finally arrived and the players took an 11-minute break.
After their return Federer saved another set point and went on to break for 5-5. The Swiss appeared to have stolen back the momentum, but the tie-break was one-sided. Federer made forehand errors on each of the first four points and lost the tie-break 7-3.
When the Swiss played a ragged game to drop serve at 2-3 in the third set it seemed that the end was nigh, but he dug deep and summoned up the spirit to go on one last all-out attack. With the vast majority of the crowd giving up any sense of impartiality, they roared their approval as Federer broke serve twice before serving out for the set.
The excitement reached a new pitch when Nadal served at 0-40 in the opening game of the fourth set, but it proved to be Federer's last hurrah. Nadal held serve and from 1-1 the Swiss faded fast.
On the first match point Federer hit a forehand long, upon which Nadal sank to his knees in celebration. He did not stay there for long, apparently not wanting to keep Federer waiting at the net. This most humble and generous of champions has only respect for the man he regards as the greatest player ever. In time, nevertheless, that may well be an accolade bestowed on the Spaniard rather than the Swiss.
Most grand slam wins
16 R Federer (Swit)
14 P Sampras (Us)
12 R Emerson (Aus)
11 R Laver (Aus), B Borg (Swe)
10 R Nadal (Sp), B Tilden (Us)
8 A Agassi (Us), J Connors (Us), I Lendl (Cze), F Perry (Brit), K Rosewall (Aus)
7 H Cochet (Fr), RLacoste (Fr), W Larned (Us), J McEnroe (Us), J Newcombe (Aus), W Renshaw (Brit)