It was a familiar routine, a rasping forehand winner, a joyful backwards fall to the dirt in celebration, then sinking his milky white into the Musketeers’ Cup, but Rafael Nadal’s romp to an eighth French Open title felt extra special on Sunday.
Not because the level of his tennis in a routine 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 win over Grand Slam final debutant, fellow Spaniard and friend David Ferrer, scaled the heights of Friday’s seismic semi-final victory over world No. 1 Novak Djokovic.
Not because he became the first man to win the same Grand Slam title eight times or because his 59th French Open win took him past Roger Federer and Guillermo Vilas as the most prolific player ever to slide across the Roland Garros clay.
Not even because the world’s fastest man, Olympic 100m and 200m champion Usain Bolt handed over the silverware.
It was because four months ago Nadal had just returned from a seven-month injury layoff not knowing whether his creaking knees could still propel him to a 12th Grand Slam title.
The answer is an emphatic yes as the 27-year-old prevailed at the end of two weeks which began with him stumbling through the opening rounds, reached a crescendo in an epic five-setter against Djokovic and ended with a functional 17th clay-court victory in succession against the admirable Ferrer.
As he did after outlasting Djokovic, Nadal wagged a knowing finger in the direction of his career-long coach and uncle Toni, and he was holding back the tears as the Spanish national anthem blared across a Court Philippe Chatrier sprinkled with umbrellas.
Only those closest to Nadal know how dark those days were when the tendinitis in his left knee left him unable to play.
“It’s unbelievable. We have gone through so many hard times,” Toni Nadal told reporters. “When he comes to Roland Garros, there’s always a special pressure. It’s not just pressure, it’s a huge emotion. Roland Garros is special for him.”
The first all-Spanish men’s final at Roland Garros since Albert Costa beat Juan Carlos Ferrero in 2002 was a disappointing spectacle, with fans wrapped up against the unseasonable chill and drizzle, but for a frightening moment late in the second set when one of several protesters to interrupt the showpiece ran toward Rafael Nadal waving a red distress flare above his head, it would not have lingered long in the memory.
The incident posed awkward questions about the French Open’s security arrangements and briefly rattled Nadal as he dropped serve at 5-1 in the second set, but the Mallorcan quickly forgot the drama to dispatch Ferrer in 2 hours, 16 minutes.
“I felt a bit scared in the first moment because I saw a guy with some fire on the court,” Rafael Nadal told reporters. “Thanks to the security staff for being courageous.”
Third seed Rafael Nadal, who dropped to five in the world below Ferrer yesterday in the ATP rankings, only occasionally cracked the whip to keep his opponent in line, particularly in the early stages of the first set when Ferrer threatened to make a match of it.
“Very happy, very emotional, very important victory for me,” Rafael Nadal, who has won seven of his nine tournaments since returning, told reporters. “It’s true that this year means something very special for me. Five months ago, nobody in my team dreamed about a comeback like this because we thought that was going to be impossible. This was the final step in my comeback.”
One could only feel for 31-year-old fourth seed Ferrer, who was contesting his first Grand Slam final at the 42nd time of asking having lost in five previous semi-finals.
He had won 18 consecutive sets on his way to the pinnacle of his hard-working career, but, just as his semi-final thrashing of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga became a footnote on a dramatic day highlighted by Rafael Nadal and Djokovic, so his name will become a mere statistic on the day his compatriot reached yet another milestone.
His tidy summing up of the match could easily be an epithet for their respective careers.
“I had my good moments and he had lots of them,” Ferrer told reporters.
Possessing far fewer weapons in his arsenal than his opponent, Ferrer’s one hope was to keep his opponent off-balance with his punchy, accurate baseline game, but with dampness in the air and the balls going fuzzy he never had the power to make an impact.
“It’s always difficult to have a winning shot with the conditions that were so heavy,” he added.
Ferrer showed no nerves as he won a long baseline exchange in the fourth game to recover an early break of serve and he briefly got his nose in front to lead 3-2, but the pressure began to tell at 3-3 when Ferrer’s poorly disguised drop-shot gave Rafael Nadal the scent of a break that he converted by cuffing a backhand-crosscourt winner.
Rafael Nadal fought off a break point in the next game, before an ace took him to 5-3 and he broke again to claim the opener.
Ferrer dug deep to avoid going 4-0 down in the second set after losing six games in a row and had four break points in the following game — the last of which Rafael Nadal saved with a scything backhand winner on the 29th stroke of the match’s standout rally.
Rafael Nadal’s surge toward the title was interrupted when two people holding a banner high in the stands began chanting before being taken away. Then in the next game, the Spaniard was stunned as a man, stripped to the waist and wearing a mask, lit a red flare and raced onto court.
After he and an accomplice were bundled away by security staff, the remainder of the final was played out in a muted atmosphere as Rafael Nadal marched relentlessly into the tennis record books.