Nadal sheds tears of relief as year of woe brought to an end

RAFAEL Nadal said all the frustrations of the past year came pouring out as he sobbed into his towel after sealing a fifth French Open title.

• Nadal claimed a record fifth French Open title yesterday in Paris

Nadal ended more than 16 months without a grand slam title yesterday with a clay-court masterclass on Philippe Chatrier Court to avenge last year's defeat to Robin Soderling.

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The Spaniard saved his best performance of the tournament – and arguably of the season – for the only man ever to have beaten him at Roland Garros.

The 24-year-old's 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 victory in two hours and 18 minutes ended any doubt over his status as the undisputed king of clay, gave him his seventh major championship, and will see him overtake Roger Federer as world No 1 today.

Nadal has been dogged by tendinitis in his knees in the past year, leaving him unable to defend his Wimbledon title last summer and forcing him to retire against Andy Murray in the defence of his Australian Open crown earlier this year.

It is also thought the injury was a big factor in last year's shock French Open defeat to Soderling. Nadal was unable to fight back the tears after beating the Swede yesterday, revealing he feared he might never get back to the pinnacle of the game.

"I had a difficult year," said Nadal, who was also suffering from an abdominal problem at the US Open. "Some moments you don't know if you'll be ready another time to compete, and be 100 per cent. It's a big frustration when you are at the US Open and you tear an abdominal one week before and you are in Australia and have to retire during the quarter-final match.

"So all these moments are difficult to accept. And for that reason, today is a very, very special day for me. I worked a lot to be here. I was very nervous during the whole tournament because I knew I was ready to win another time. Today, I was ready to play."

Despite reclaiming the top spot he had not held for almost a year, Nadal insisted his tears were reserved solely for regaining his French Open title. Pointing to the Coupe des Mousquetaires, he said: "This is the most important thing for me.

"When I was crying after the match, the last thing I was thinking about was the No 1. The first thing is the title and all the hours I worked to be here another time."

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Time and again, Soderling thought he had Nadal where he wanted him.

But the second seed would almost inevitably make his opponent play one more shot or produce a sensational winner as he emulated his 2008 feat of winning the title without dropping a set.

Alluding again to the fact he was not fully fit when he played Soderling last year, Nadal said: "Today, I felt great physically. I felt perfect mentally, too. I played with very good tactics, I think, and the movement was at my best level."

Nadal revealed he would not have time to celebrate his triumph because he was heading to London for the Aegon Championships at Queen's. After winning all 22 of his matches on clay this season, he is not short of confidence going into the grass court season.

"Winning here and winning the last 22 matches on clay is always very good preparation for grass," he said.

Soderling, who was also beaten in straight sets by Federer in last year's final, admitted he had once again failed to produce his best when it really mattered.

The 25-year-old said: "Of course I can play better. I wish I could have done that but he played great. All credit to him."

The Swede, who failed to take any of the eight break points he created, added: "Rafa always plays kind of the same. He has more or less one game, but he does it so well it's enough to not lose a match on clay for a whole year, which is pretty good. You always know what to expect when you play against him. I think in the beginning I was a little bit unlucky; I had a few break chances.

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"I didn't take them, so then, of course, it was tough. I don't think it would have changed anything."

Nadal is just the second man to win Roland Garros at least five times and he is now within one victory of equalling Swede Bjorn Borg's record of six titles. Borg had predicted compatriot Soderling would win the final, while the consensus had been that if conditions were heavy, the Swede would have the advantage.

But despite a morning thunderstorm, the match began in warm, overcast conditions. Immediately the pattern was set, Soderling slamming his flat groundstrokes so deep that Nadal was constantly forced to hit off the back foot.

However unlike last year, when Soderling barely missed and Nadal was below par, this time the Spaniard's retrieving was at its very best and the Swede was forced into mistakes.

Nadal saved a break point at 1-2 as Soderling fired a backhand long and then made the Swede pay immediately as he broke serve thanks to a backhand pass.

Soderling saved two break points in the seventh game to stay in touch but then wasted two chances to level at 4-4 through two errors on the backhand.

Nadal then forced three set points on the Soderling serve only to be thwarted by some brave hitting, but the Spaniard clinched the set on his own serve in the next game when Soderling missed a forehand, prompting a huge Nadal fist pump.

Soderling continued to attack and in the second game of the second set, he worked his way to 15-40 on the Nadal serve, but the Spaniard saved both break points and then two more.

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When the Swede sent a forehand wide in the fifth game, Nadal had the break and he repeated the feat two games later on his way to taking a two sets to love lead.

Any chance Soderling had of getting back into the match depended on a strong start to the third set but he gifted Nadal a break in the first game as another forehand slipped wide.

The capacity crowd, who had cheered for Soderling late in the first set and early in the second, went strangely quiet as Nadal closed in on victory.

And when Soderling netted a backhand, the title was the Spaniard's, prompting jubilant scenes.