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Nadal beats Djokovic for 7th French Open title

Mugshot

Spain’s Rafael Nadal returns the ball to Serbia’s Novak Djokovic during their men’s final match in the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros Stadium in Paris on Monday, June 11, 2012. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

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 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 a shrinking lead. 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. The King of Clay 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 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 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 2007, 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.”

If so, Nadal was much worse off Sunday when strong showers left the court slippery and the tennis balls heavy and clay-streaked. Djokovic, outclassed at the outset, emerged at his go-for-broke best, pushing around Nadal, who dropped a set for the only time in the tournament.

After Nadal held serve to get within 2-1 in the fourth set, they were sent home for the night, pushing the French Open beyond Sunday for the first time since 1973.

“We got lucky,” Uncle Toni conceded.

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