Humble Nadal in 7th heaven at French Open

Rafael Nadal is so unflinching, so nearly unbeatable, while

sliding and grinding and pounding his way past opponent after

opponent at the French Open. Away from the red clay, Nadal is

human, of course. Humble, even.

Nadal’s mind, generally impervious to negativity on court, was

fraught with worry for the 18 or so hours he and No. 1-ranked Novak

Djokovic were made to wait, from Sunday evening into Monday

afternoon, before continuing the fourth set of their

rain-interrupted final at Roland Garros, a match filled with

historic implications.

While eating dinner, while leafing through his favorite Japanese

anime comic book in his hotel room before bedtime, while getting in

a pre-match practice session, Nadal focused not on the

tantalizingly close prospect of a record seventh French Open

championship, but rather on the other possible outcome: a loss in a

fourth consecutive major final against Djokovic, who in turn would

become the first man since 1969 to collect four Grand Slam titles

in a row.

”You never know if you’re going to win another one,” Nadal

said. ”Opportunities pass … Losing a fourth in a row would have

been tough for me.”

When play was halted by showers on Sunday, the No. 2-ranked

Nadal was clinging to a lead quickly shrinking as his performance

dipped and Djokovic’s rose. It wasn’t until a few minutes before

setting foot back on Court Philippe Chatrier – his favorite arena

at his favorite tournament on his favorite surface – that Nadal set

aside his anxiety. Oh, did he. Once again the King of Clay, Nadal

overwhelmed Djokovic for the 50 minutes and nine games they played

Monday, wrapping up a 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 victory that allowed Nadal

to earn French Open trophy No. 7, breaking a tie with Bjorn

Borg.

”I don’t know if I am the best or not,” said Nadal, who won

his 11th Grand Slam title overall. ”I am not the right one to say

that.”

Djokovic, for his part, had zero doubts.

”He’s definitely (the) best player in history … on this

surface,” said Djokovic, whose 27-match Grand Slam winning streak

ended, ”and results are showing that he’s one of the best

ever.”

Can’t argue with that. Since his French Open debut at age 18 in

May 2005, Nadal is 52-1 for his career at the tournament, the only

loss coming to Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009.

Asked to explain his success on clay, Nadal pointed not to his

uppercut of a topspin-slathered forehand, or his superior returns

of serve, but rather to his movement, his mental fortitude, and

this: ”I always was scared to lose.”

Djokovic gave Nadal reason for added concern, having beaten him

in the finals at Wimbledon in July, the U.S. Open in September, and

the Australian Open in January. Djokovic was attempting to be only

the third man to win four major tournaments in succession, joining

Don Budge in 1938, and Rod Laver in 1962 and 1969.

Alas, Djokovic ran into Nadal at Roland Garros. The same thing

happened to Roger Federer in 2006 and `07, when his Grand Slam bids

fell one win short because of losses to Nadal in the French Open

final.

”For us, it was very important to win here now against

Djokovic, because we knew that if he won again, the fourth one,

then (Rafa) completing a Grand Slam of losses would have been

ugly,” said Toni Nadal, Rafael’s uncle and coach. ”And we were

very close to doing that.”

Instead, his nephew gained ground on Federer’s record of 16

Grand Slam titles, tying Borg and Laver for fourth place.

Borg walked away from the sport at age 25 after losing the 1981

Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals to John McEnroe.

”If Borg had kept playing until he was 30, he might have won 10

French Opens – something Nadal could wind up doing if he keeps

playing,” said Corrado Barazzutti, a top-10 player in the 1970s

who lost all 10 career matches against the Swede.

”Borg was a player who, particularly on red clay, was

unbeatable, in my opinion. Facing him on a court was like being

trapped in a tunnel. It was dark. You couldn’t move,” Barazzutti

said. ”That must be what it’s like to play Nadal.”

Even a passing shower that the players waited out on the

sideline didn’t slow Nadal on this afternoon. He’s from the island

of Mallorca, and loves to spend his rare downtime playing golf or

hanging out at the beach or fishing.

Nadal dropped to his knees on winning and covered his face,

thick strips of white tape covering the knuckles and fingertips of

his racket-wielding left hand. He rose, chucked his racket, and

clambered into the stands for a group hug with his father and

various members of his entourage. Then he leaped into Toni’s arms,

spilling his uncle’s bottle of water.

”When you lose, it’s because you don’t deserve the title,”

Nadal said. ”So in my mind, this was the final I had to win.

That’s why I was so emotional.”

Nearly two hours later, Nadal and more than a dozen others

gathered on the court for a photo session of the sort you might see

at a wedding. First, everyone stood together for a picture, Nadal

cradling the trophy. Then came various two-person poses: Rafa with

Dad; Rafa with Uncle Toni; Rafa with his buddy Pau Gasol of the Los

Angeles Lakers.

Might seem a tad over-the-top for a guy who’s done this so many

times.

Then again, you only win your seventh French Open trophy

once.

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