Rafael Nadal shook off the anxiety of a tense, wet evening in Paris just in time to defeat the world’s top-ranked tennis player and make French Open history.
After fighting with the referee, battling a slippery court and watching Novak Djokovic thump groundstrokes past him the day before, Nadal said he regained his composure three minutes before their rain-interrupted men’s final resumed yesterday.
The result was a 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 victory for Nadal, his seventh title at Roland Garros to break a tie with Bjorn Borg for the most men’s singles championships in tournament history.
“I was very nervous during all the night,” Nadal said at a news conference, the Coupe des Mousquetaires winner’s trophy by his side. “I was a little bit anxious to play what remains of the match.”
The final, which was pushed into an extra day for the first time at the French Open since 1973, resumed with the 26-year-old Spaniard leading Djokovic two sets to one and a break down in the fourth.
Serving at 2-1, Djokovic was broken as Nadal attacked with his forehand. With play back on serve and Djokovic trailing 6-5, a double fault on match point ended the Serb’s quest to become the first man to win four major championships in a row since Australia’s Rod Laver took them all in 1969.
“He started off really strong,” Djokovic said about the resumption of play yesterday. “I started a bit slower. It was a little bit unfortunate in that first game, and things turned around.”
Nadal now has won 11 major singles titles, tying him with Borg and Laver. Only Roger Federer of Switzerland (16), Pete Sampras of the U.S. (14) and Roy Emerson of Australia (12) have won more. It also was Nadal’s first major championship since he tied Borg with six titles in Paris last year. Djokovic has won five Grand Slam titles.
“Records are always there to be broken,” Borg said in a statement reported by the Swedish news agency TT. “Nadal is one of the world’s best players, but he’s also one of the nicest off the court, too. He will surely win the French Open a couple of times more.”
Nadal argued with officials about playing as the rain fell and said he benefited from the second delay, the one that suspended the match overnight.
“The conditions were much more favorable for Novak than for me” at the end of the day on Sunday, he said. “I lost meters behind the baseline. I really felt that I wasn’t able to push him back like I did at the beginning of the match.”
The second-seeded Spaniard has won 36 clay-court titles, the most of anyone currently playing on the ATP World Tour. Borg won 30 tournaments on the slow surface before he retired at the age 26 in 1983. Nadal, who honed his clay-court game at home in Mallorca from the age of 4 with the help of his uncle and longtime coach, Toni Nadal, has now won seven titles in eight years at Roland Garros.
“I was very focused for the last eight years, because winning as much as I did in this surface the last eight years is not because I played great every time,” Nadal said. “It’s impossible to play great every time. Even when I played so-so, I was there mentally. The mental part was there 100 percent.”
Nadal prepares so meticulously for matches that he had no time to meet Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II before a second-round match at Wimbledon in 2010.
“Every single match, I see that guy four, five hours before the match, he’s in the locker room,” seven-time major singles champion John McEnroe told reporters last week at Roland Garros. “The preparation is amazing. You’d think once in a while maybe I won’t tape this finger for the practice or I don’t need to do that for that 20-, 30-minute hit. He’s so well prepared. It’s going to be unbelievably tough to beat this guy.”
The 25-year-old Djokovic agreed.
“He’s definitely best player in history on this surface, and results are showing that he’s one of the best ever players that played this game,” Djokovic said.
Unlike Borg, who retired early, Nadal isn’t done yet.
“I cannot predict the future,” the left-hander said. “But I will play on for as long as my body allows me to and as long as I have the motivation and the passion for the game. I hope it will be for a long time.”