PARIS (Reuters) - A gaping hole on a smashed-up on-court bench bore testament to how maddening it is to play Rafa Nadal at Roland Garros as the Spaniard was hailed as the ‘greatest ever claycourt player’ after hoisting the French Open trophy for a record seventh time.
Novak Djokovic found plenty of uses for his racket during a soggy final which spilled into a second day on Monday. The world number one slammed it to the ground, sent debris flying everywhere after smashing it into his courtside bench and even whacked his head repeatedly with it.
But it simply could not conjure the strokes that would have allowed the Serb to become the first man in 43 years to win four grand slams in a row and instead Djokovic, with a sore head and tortured soul, fired a double fault that prompted Nadal sink to his knees following a 6-4 6-3 2-6 7-5 victory.
The high-stakes showdown had started at 1517 local time on Sunday under menacing grey skies, was contested mainly through driving rain, and ended almost 23 hours later in a sudden burst of sunshine with a triumphant Nadal curled into a foetal position in the most famous arena in claycourt tennis.
On a court that has become a private stage for his jaw-dropping skills, Nadal eclipsed the record he shared with Bjorn Borg and showed the man who had defeated him in the last three grand slam finals that this was his stomping ground.
But unlike Borg, who quit the sport at 26, the same age as Nadal is now, the insatiable Spaniard still hungers to extend his astonishing Roland Garros run which now stands at 52-1, with a 7-0 record in the finals.
“He’s definitely best player in history on this surface, and results are showing that he’s one of the best‑ever players that played this game,” Djokovic told reporters after his 27-match winning streak at the slams was ended by Nadal in the three hours 50 minute duel.
Nadal, though, was not feeling so invincible when he woke up on Monday morning with a 6-4 6-3 2-6 1-2 lead.
As far as he was concerned, the thought of joining Australian Jack Crawford as the only man to have lost four successive slam finals, was the stuff of nightmares.
“I had lost three grand slam finals in a row to him. If I had lost a fourth final, this would have been very difficult for me,” said Nadal, who had reached the Paris showpiece without dropping a set. “I was very nervous all night. So in my mind, this was the final I had to win.”
He need not have worried as after only 50 minutes of action on Monday, he was once again cradling the Musketeers’ Cup and running his fingers down the list of champions on the metal plate at the base of the trophy, knowing that as of June 11 2012, his name will appear on it more than anybody else’s.
Nadal might have rained down on Djokovic’s parade - denying him the chance of doing something no man has done since Australian great Rod Laver in 1969, but at least Djokovic had the consolation of knowing that he is an intrinsic part of an exceptional era in men’s tennis.
If there were any doubt about how this golden trio of Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer measure up to generations gone by, it seems that every time they step on a grand slam stage, there is a fresh deluge of eye-watering statistics.
They have now won 28 of the last 29 grand slams - it would have been 29-of-29 if Federer had not blown a two-sets-to-one lead against Juan Martin del Potro in the 2009 U.S. Open final.
All three players have been in a position to win four slams in row. Federer in 2006 and 2007, Nadal in 2011 and Djokovic this weekend. From 1969 to 2006, only Pete Sampras came close to pulling off the feat in the men’s game in 1994.
The trio have also dominated the top ranking since Federer first climbed to the summit in February 2004.
“The sport is experiencing some really good times now. We’re attracting a lot of attention because we have these two great players, and ... myself. We really have some charismatic players, a lot of personalities. This is good for tennis,” said the world number one.
A French Open final that had so much riding on it proved tricky and exasperating for both players.
A day earlier tennis fans has seen the best and worst of Djokovic. But at least he had got his temper tantrums under control to fight back from two sets and a break down to win eight successive games as persistent drizzle turned the surface into a muddy mess.
That had left Nadal irritated, Djokovic rejuvenated and the encounter on a knife-edge with the Spaniard leading by two sets to one but a break down in the fourth as the finale headed into third-week finish for the first time here since 1973.
When the players returned on Monday, though, Roland Garros resembled a ghost-town with most of the boutiques in the grounds closed and only a handful of people milling around the alleyways.
It was not long before Nadal started to haunt Djokovic in a half-full Philippe Chatrier Court.
The Serb was left whacking his head with his racket within minutes of the restart as he went down break point after belting a forehand into the net to end a 21-shot rally.
Seconds later the Serb saw his 2-1 break advantage vanish after a leaping netcord allowed Nadal to blaze an audacious passing shot winner.
Djokovic raised his arm to slam another racket, but thought better of it. He smacked his head again with his racket after coming off second best in yet another 20-stroke plus rally, and complained bitterly to the umpire when the rain showers returned with Nadal just one game away from victory.
But the rain Gods were not willing to play ball with Djokovic on Monday and rapidly cleared away to allow Nadal to claim his moment of glory.
Editing by Toby Davis