Saturday, January 20, 2018
Sports

Nadal earns record-setting win

PARIS — Rafael Nadal was worried.

A guy so unflinching, so nearly unbeatable, while sliding and grinding and pounding his way past opponent after opponent at the French Open, got a real case of nerves during the 18 hours he and Novak Djokovic waited for the restart of their rain-interrupted final at Roland Garros.

Instead of focusing on how close he was to winning a record seventh French Open championship, Nadal grew increasingly wary of the other possible outcome: a loss in a fourth consecutive Grand Slam final against Djokovic, who was trying to become the first man since 1969 to collect four straight major titles.

When play was halted by showers Sunday, Nadal was clinging to an ever-shrinking lead. It wasn't until a few minutes before setting foot back on Court Philippe Chatrier that Nadal set aside his anxiety. He overwhelmed the No.1-ranked 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.

"You never know if you're going to win another one," said the second-ranked Nadal, who owns 11 Grand Slam titles.

"I don't know if I am the best or not," he added. "I am not the right one to say that."

Djokovic, for his part, had zero doubts. He worked his way back into the match with an eight-game run when it was pouring Sunday, but otherwise was outplayed, at the start and the finish.

"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. He's just as good elsewhere on clay, too: Nadal's won eight titles at Monte Carlo, seven at Barcelona, six at Rome.

Asked to explain his success on the surface, Nadal pointed not to his 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 final at Wimbledon in July, the U.S. Open in September, and the Australian Open in January.

Nadal gained ground on Roger Federer's record of 16 Grand Slam titles, tying Borg and Laver for fourth place.

Well-rested Monday, Nadal and Djokovic opened with a crescendo: The first point contained eight strokes, the third had 11, the fourth had 16 and the fifth had 21, ending with Djokovic's errant forehand that gave Nadal a chance to break.

On the next point, Nadal's shot slapped the white tape atop the net and trickled over. Djokovic got to the ball but couldn't do much, setting up Nadal for a cross-court backhand passing winner.

That was the break Nadal needed.

"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."

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