Tennis: Emotional king of clay recaptures his crown

RAFAEL NADAL admitted fearing he might never return to the pinnacle of men's tennis after regaining his French Open title and world No.1 tag.

Nadal yesterday produced another Roland Garros masterclass to end 16 months without a grand slam and any doubt over his status as the undisputed king of clay.

The 24-year-old dismissed Robin Soderling 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 in under two and a half hours on Philippe Chatrier Court to win his fifth French Open crown and avenge last year's defeat to the Swede.

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His fourth-round exit in 2009 was the first in a succession of calamities to befall Nadal during a testing seven months, which saw injury scupper his hopes at Wimbledon – where he did not even play – the US Open and the Australian Open.

After winning his last 22 matches, the Spaniard is now back on top of the tennis tree, a view he worried he might never enjoy again.

"I think everybody has doubts, has his doubts with himself – I am not an exception," said Nadal, whose months of frustration came out in a flood of tears after yesterday's victory.

"When I worked a lot at home during December, my feeling was I was in perfect condition to try to win in Australia. When I had to retire from there, it was a very difficult moment.

"Going out off court in any tournament is very hard, especially in a grand slam.

"The harder thing is that you're going to be another three weeks without practice at home recovering."

Nadal revealed he wept out of sheer relief after feeling under more pressure than ever at Roland Garros this year.

"I was there crying, but it was really emotional moment for me," he said, describing his victory as one of the most important of his career.

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"I didn't think about a lot of things but the moment, and afterwards all the nerves, the pressure on me and a difficult year.

"After you win this big title, you lose your tension."

And despite his exertions of the last fortnight, Nadal insists he is at peak fitness for a crack at a second Wimbledon title – and before that the AEGON Championships.

"Physically, I'm feeling great," said the Spaniard, who has been dogged by tendinitis in the past.

"I don't have any problems, so that's the most important thing for me. If you have problems, it's impossible to enjoy and is very difficult to play at your best.

"If you think about the knees, you can't think about the ball.

"You can play with pain, but if you have a pain that limits your movements, it's impossible to play at the best level."

This year's French Open saw Soderling repeat the feat of knocking out the defending champion and losing in the final.

Asked if yesterday's defeat was harder to take than being beaten just as comfortably by Roger Federer 12 months ago, the 25-year-old said: "They're both tough, of course. Losing a final in a grand slam is not great. It's not a great feeling.

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"But I wasn't close in any one of them. I lost in straight sets last year and the same this year.

"It's always tougher if you lose a really, really close match."

Women's champion Francesca Schiavone joked she will have to buy a new house to host the party she plans to hold after becoming the first Italian woman to win a grand slam.

Schiavone could certainly afford an upgrade after being handed a cheque for 927,000 for two weeks' work yesterday, a quarter of the amount it had taken her 12 years to accumulate previously.

And the 29-year-old earned every penny on Philippe Chatrier Court with a 6-4, 7-6 (7/2) win over Samantha Stosur in one of the best Roland Garros finals in recent memory.

Despite her historic achievement, Schiavone is not expecting a ticker-tape parade when she arrives back in Milan but plans her own celebration with family and friends, many of whom drove ten hours across Europe to watch her yesterday.

"I want to go home to mummy and daddy," she said.

"This is my goal for the moment, because usually we have a good dinner or good lunch, ten people.

"Now I think I have to buy a new house – bigger – for 50 people.

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"I can't feel what's happening in Italy. But for me it is an honour to be champion and to be a person that maybe someone can use as an example."

Indeed, Schiavone is the latest example in sport of someone being rewarded for never giving up on their dream.

It took her 39 attempts to win a major – 39 attempts even to make a semi-final – and in doing so she became the second oldest first-time female grand slam champion.