As Rafael Nadal posed for photographers his hands were so gripped by cramp that he could barely hold the trophy, but the image could hardly have been less symbolic. The 28-year-old Spaniard already owned the record for the most titles won at a single Grand Slam tournament and maintained his extraordinary hold on the French Open last night when a 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 victory over Novak Djokovic took his tally of Roland Garros titles to nine.
After all the doubts over Nadal’s ability to maintain his remarkable domination on the Paris courts, which had been fuelled by Djokovic’s victory in the Rome final only three weeks earlier, the world No 1 was an emphatic winner. In becoming the first man to win the title five times in a row he took his current winning streak here to 35 matches. In 10 appearances at the tournament he has lost just one of his 67 matches.
“For me, this is amazing, an emotional day,” Nadal said afterwards. “I lost the final of the Australian Open this year, when I had a problem with my back. It was a very hard moment, so today gave me back what happened in Australia.”
He added: “Playing against Novak is always a big challenge for me. I had lost to him the last four times we had played. Every time I only have the chance to beat him if I play to my limit.”
Nadal’s 14th Grand Slam title puts him joint second with Pete Sampras on the all-time list, which is headed by Roger Federer with 17. It was also a huge psychological blow to land on his greatest rival. Djokovic needed victory to reclaim the world No 1 ranking and, more importantly, to complete his collection of Grand Slam titles. The Serb is the only man who has won three or more Grand Slam matches against Nadal, but this was his sixth successive defeat against him at Roland Garros.
There were times during the match when Djokovic stared intently in the direction of his entourage. Taking his record to five defeats in his last six Grand Slam finals was not the outcome he had been hoping for when he appointed Boris Becker as his head coach at the end of last year.
This has been one of the coldest French Opens in living memory, but the tournament ended in glorious sunshine, with the temperature climbing to 27C and the finalists calling for ice towels during the changeovers. The conditions favoured Nadal, who loves it when the balls fly through the warm air and his top-spun forehands rear up off the court surface.
In truth it was not a match of the highest quality. Nadal never hit the heights which he had scaled during his semi-final victory over Andy Murray, while Djokovic did not appear to be in the best physical condition and made an uncharacteristically large number of mistakes. “I wasn’t playing at the level that I wanted, especially in the second part of the match,” he admitted afterwards.
Nevertheless, it was Djokovic who drew first blood. Both players had taken time to settle in a patchy first set, but Nadal was broken when he served at 3-4, hitting a forehand wide on the second break point. Nadal forced two break points of his own when Djokovic served for the set, but wasted both with poor forehands.
Nadal broke for the first time in the sixth game of the second set, only for Djokovic to break back immediately. At 5-6, however, Djokovic went 15-40 down after putting a careless forehand wide, upon which Nadal took the set with a forehand winner, which was followed by much fist-pumping and a massive cry of “Vamos!” After two sets and more than an hour and three-quarters of play, not even the total points tally – they had won 63 each – could separate the two men.
Nevertheless, by the start of the third set it was clear that the momentum was with Nadal. The Spaniard broke to go 2-0 up when Djokovic made a complete hash of what should have been a routine volley. At the subsequent changeover the Serb had a look of resignation on his face as he slumped into his chair. At 4-2 he hurled his racket to the ground in frustration as a chance to break back slipped away.
A further break of serve saw Nadal take the third set and Djokovic was broken again at 2-3 in the fourth. The world No 2, always a great fighter, responded in admirable fashion by breaking back immediately, but Nadal was not to be denied.
When Djokovic served at 4-5 and 30-30 a careless forehand gave Nadal match point. What happened next may haunt Djokovic in years to come. He missed his first serve and then had to endure cruel boos and jeers when he aborted his first ball toss on his second serve.
Another shout from the crowd clearly did little for Djokovic’s concentration and his second serve was long. As Nadal sank to his knees in celebration, Djokovic turned and gave a sarcastic thumbs-up in the direction of the spectator who had shouted out.
However, it was not a fair representation of the crowd’s affections as Djokovic had enjoyed plenty of support. Indeed at the end a chant of “Novak! Novak!” rang around the stadium during prolonged applause for the runner-up.
Nadal said at the presentation ceremony that he was certain Djokovic would win the title here one day, but at this rate the Serb will have to wait for the Spaniard to put away his rackets for good before he wins the only Grand Slam title which has so far eluded him.