Rafael Nadal's sixth win at French Open a bite special as he proves clay king
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 great rival, 7-5, 7-6, 5-7, 6-1 in a pulsating final, Nadal not only reaffirmed his status as the king of clay but also kept hold of his world No 1 ranking.
The two finest players of recent times gave the tournament the climax it deserved.
Nadal had dropped 77 games en route to the final - more than in any of his previous campaigns - but had been improving throughout the tournament and found some of his best tennis when it mattered.
Nobody can turn stonewall defence into stunning attack quite like the world No 1, who has now won 45 of the 46 matches he has played here.
Federer put faith in his attacking game. For the most part he kept Nadal well behind the baseline, enabling him to use regular drop shots. The tactic brought a frequent reward, but Nadal kept coming back and eventually wore his man down with the sheer force of his game.
There was no doubt who the crowd wanted to win. Nadal is popular here, but the Parisians love Federer more for all his elegance and style. On a muggy afternoon, when the forecast rain arrived only for a brief period, the crowd quickly warmed to a thrilling contest.
Nadal is now only the second man, after Bjorn Borg, to win here six times. It is an extraordinary feat for someone who is just three days past his 25th birthday, but, remarkably, he is one day older than Borg was when the Swede claimed his last title here.
Borg is also the only man who won his tenth Grand Slam title at an earlier age, 24 years and 30 days.
Only six players can better Nadal's haul of 10 Grand Slam titles. The all-time list 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 Nadal has now won 17 of their 25 matches. This was his fourth victory over Federer in the French Open final.
Federer has won 16 of the record 23 Grand Slam finals in which he has appeared, with all seven of his defeats coming against Nadal. His only two victories over the Spaniard were in the Wimbledon finals of 2007 and 2008. Those remain Nadal's only defeats in his 12 appearances in Grand Slam finals.
If there was a turning point it came towards at set point in the first set.
Federer hit what he thought was a winning drop shot only for the umpire, Pascal Maria, to inspect the mark and rule that it had missed the line.
That escape proved to be just 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.
The transformation in Nadal's game was remarkable. The Spaniard appeared to rediscover all his old confidence and with the help of two sensational counter-attacking forehand winners he won 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, the rain which had been forecast all day finally arrived, forcing the players to take an 11-minute break.
When they returned Federer saved another set point and went on to break for 5-5. but the Swiss made forehand errors on each of the first four points of the tie-break and lost it 7-3.
When Federer played a horribly ragged game to drop serve at 2-3 in the third set it seemed that the end was nigh, but he summoned up the spirit to go on one more all-out attack, broke serve twice and served 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 Federer faded fast.
Nadal, one of the most humble and generous of champions, has only respect for the man he regards as the greatest player ever. In time, though, that may well be an accolade bestowed on the Spaniard rather than the Swiss.