Rafael Nadal maintained his phenomenal stranglehold on the French Open by defeating Novak Djokovic to win a ninth title at Roland-Garros.
Djokovic had been bidding to become only the eighth man to win all four grand slam titles but, although he won the first set, Nadal fought back to triumph 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4.
The Spaniard becomes the first man to win five successive French Open titles and extended his record to a remarkable 66 matches won on the Paris clay from 67 played. He has won nine of the ten tournaments in which he has competed here and is now tied with Pete Sampras on 14 grand slam singles titles, three behind Roger Federer, while victory for Nadal also ensured he will stay world No 1.
Djokovic hired Boris Becker as his head coach to try to give him an extra edge at precisely these moments but he has now lost five of his last six grand slam finals.
Nadal said: “Playing against Novak is always a big challenge for me. I lost against him the last four times. Every time I have the chance to beat him it’s because I play to my limit. I’m sorry for him, I think he deserves to win this tournament, I’m sure he will in the future.
“I had a very emotional loss in Australia with my back. Today tennis gave me back what happened in Australia.”
The top two players in the world were meeting for the 42nd time, more than any other two men in the Open era. Nadal had beaten Djokovic in all their five previous meetings at Roland-Garros but Djokovic has been getting closer, pushing Nadal to 9-7 in the fifth set 12 months ago in a semi-final he probably should have won.
Djokovic had started the fortnight as the favourite after beating Nadal in Rome but that changed after the semi-finals on Friday, when Nadal crushed Andy Murray and Djokovic struggled against Ernests Gulbis.
Djokovic’s game matches up better against Nadal than anyone else’s and it was he who struck first with a break for 5-3.
Nadal saved two break points, the first with a trademark curling forehand onto the line, but Djokovic showed his forehand down the line was pretty good, too, to bring up a third chance and this time his opponent just missed with an off forehand.
It was the first time Djokovic had won the opening set against Nadal at Roland-Garros and the first time since 2006 the Spaniard had lost the opener in the final.
This has been Nadal’s least dominant season on clay, the 28-year-old losing three matches in the build-up to the French Open for the first time in a decade.
He struggled to get over the blow of a back injury striking him down in the Australian Open final against Stan Wawrinka in January and, after losing to David Ferrer in Monte Carlo, said he had lost some of his “inside power”.
All those doubts seemed to have been buried by his form against Murray but what was at stake was clearly getting to both men.
Nadal did strike first in the second set with a break for 4-2 but he then handed the initiative right back with another wayward forehand.
He had a chance to make it three breaks in a row only to miscue a backhand, but when two set points arrived in the 12th game, Nadal took the first with a forehand winner, leaping and punching the air with delight.
The start of the third set was huge for Djokovic but he could not stop Nadal’s momentum, netting a routine backhand volley to trail 2-0, and the Serbian began to look very weary in the heat.
He rallied and forced break points in the fifth and seventh games but Nadal held on and then broke once more to take the set when Djokovic drove a forehand long.
Djokovic had lost the third set easily in last year’s semi-final before fighting back but he did not look like he had too much left.
And Nadal moved closer to the title with a break for 4-2 when Djokovic pulled a backhand wide trying desperately to send the ball beyond the reach of his opponent.
But just when his chances looked to be over, Djokovic hit back, a pinpoint return forcing Nadal into the error.
The Serbian pressed hard for another break but Nadal held on, beating his chest as he moved to within one game of victory.
And that was all he needed, Djokovic placing a forehand long to give up a match point and then serving a double fault after three hours and 31 minutes – just as he had in losing his first French Open final to the same opponent two years ago.