x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

The 'King of Clay' Rafael Nadal keeps his crown

It was, as most feared, an anticlimax. After the epic semi-final between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, the final was always going to be an undercard.

Rafael Nadal moved ahead of Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg in list of all-time grand slam winners. Julian Finney / Getty Images
Rafael Nadal moved ahead of Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg in list of all-time grand slam winners. Julian Finney / Getty Images

It was, as most feared, an anticlimax. After the epic semi-final between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic on Friday, the final yesterday was always going to be an undercard.

Featuring a seven-time Roland Garros champion on one side and a first-time grand slam finalist on the other, the French Open men's final meandered to a close without any drama, save a crazed spectator who ran onto the court with a burning flare in hand as he tried to reach Nadal.

For the rest, the "King of Clay" held court. David Ferrer, like Maria Sharapova in the woman's final 24 hours earlier, tried his best and looked earnest, but there was just too much quality on the other side of the net.

Relentless, Nadal became the first man to win the same grand slam championship on eight occasions; in the Open era, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer have each won seven Wimbledon titles.

It truly was a historic day for the all-conquering Spaniard. He became the first man to win at least one of the majors every year for nine consecutive seasons; Sampras and Bjorn Borg had done it over eight years.

Nadal also moved ahead of Borg and Rod Laver on the all-time grand slam winners list with his 12th major championship. He is now tied with Roy Emerson and only Sampras (14) and Federer (17) are ahead.

The Nadal-Djokovic semi-final lasted four hours and 37 minutes; the final clocked at less than half of that at 2:16.

Finishing off with a big forehand across the court, Nadal threw his racket away and slipped to the ground, clutching his face. The tears were, however, visible for everyone present at Court Philippe Chatrier.

He had cried after the semi-final win as well.

"Rafael was very, very emotional," his uncle and coach, Toni Nadal, said after the last-four encounter against Djokovic.

"I know that this is very, very difficult for us to be here in the final when we have so many problems."

Toni was referring to the knee injury, which had kept Nadal out of circuit for seven months. After losing in the second round last summer at Wimbledon, he had missed the London Olympics, the US Open and the Australian Open.

Since returning to the tour in February, though, Nadal has made the final at each of the nine tournaments in which he has entered, and has won seven of them. He is 43-2 for the year and has won 59 of his 60 matches at Roland Garros since winning the tournament on debut age 18 in 2005.

"This is one of the most special victories and thanks to everybody who has supported me, especially after the low moments last year," Nadal said after the win.

"It would have been impossible to be here without the support I have received and it gives me a very positive energy.

"Thank you as well to all my fans here in Paris. I never dreamed I would win this many French Open titles."

However, Brad Gilbert, the bronze-medal winner at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, claims he always knew Nadal would reach stratospheric heights in Paris.

"In 2005, I said Rafa could win 8-10 French Opens," the American tweeted after the final. "Everyone thought I was crazy. How many more can he go? 10-12?"

A dozen French Open titles may not be beyond Nadal. He is only 27, and given his record on the red clay, who would dare laugh at Gilbert now? But will Ferrer make another grand slam final?

It took 42 attempts for Ferrer, 31, to reach that stage for the first time in his career; he had made five semi-finals earlier. But to his dismay, Ferrer ran into the king, who was determined to keep his crown.

"These two weeks I played very good tennis, but I would like to say congratulations for Rafael," he said. "History shows that he is the best. I always try to do my best, but I know how difficult it is here with Rafa playing."

Ferrer, of course, knows that better than others. Among the top 10 seeds at this French Open, he was only one of three (Djokovic and Federer being the others) who could boast of a win over his Davis Cup teammate on clay, but that had come in 2004, in the first match between the two.

"I won once when we were kids … I beat him on clay," Ferrer said of that match, when Nadal was 17. "Defeating Rafa is very difficult on any surface; it's even worse on clay."

At Roland Garros, it is virtually impossible. Federer, who lost four finals to Nadal, would vouch for that.

arizvi@thenational.ae

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