The 28-year-old yesterday put himself in a league of his own when he beat Novak Djokovic in four sets to win his ninth French Open title, an achievement that will surely never be equalled.
"This is very emotional for me," Nadal said. "After what happened in Australia [when a back injury hampered him in the final against Stanislas Wawrinka], I was probably a bit mentally down but in the last weeks I have improved and here I played my best clay-court tournament of the year."
In hot, sultry conditions that left both players physically and mentally drained, the Spaniard made it five Roland Garros crowns in a row and moved alongside Pete Sampras on 14 grand slam titles.
The effort it took to clinch a 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 victory over Djokovic, a win that means he retains the world No.1 ranking, left both men in tears as the crowd saluted their efforts.
Nadal has lost just once in 10 years at Roland Garros, a fourth-round defeat by Robin Soderling coming when his knees were on the verge of giving way. Whether it was the conditions or the stress of the situation, with Djokovic chasing the only grand slam title to elude him, neither man hit their usual heights but as so often in Paris, on the Roland Garros clay, Nadal emerged triumphant.
So hard was he pushing for victory that Djokovic vomited at one stage and, by the end, both men looked spent, with Nadal cramping during the trophy presentation.
Djokovic began the stronger and one break in the eighth game, followed by a tough hold in the next, gave him the opening set.
At that stage Nadal was dropping the ball too short, allowing the Serb to attack, but as the second set wore on the Spaniard ground his way into the match.
Having earned a break for 4-2 he handed it straight back but at 5-5 he moved ahead again and then broke Djokovic to level the match, prompting a massive celebration that must have dented the Serb's resolve.
"After one set and a half we were a little bit tired," Nadal said. "It was very important for me to win that second set. Without that second set, I don't know if I have this trophy with me now."
The third set was all Nadal as Djokovic appeared to be wilting and at 4-2 in the fourth to the world No.1 the match looked over. But Djokovic, as he has done so often in his career, especially in big matches, hit back when he was down, and levelled at 4-4. The crowd inside Court Philippe Chatrier sensed a fifth set but Nadal had other ideas and after holding for 5-4 he won it when Djokovic double faulted.
It was a cruel end to another massive effort from Djokovic and as the tears filled his eyes he was given an extended standing ovation by the crowd.
"Of course it's right after you go off the court and you want this title so much and you don't win it for several years now, and it's disappointing," said Djokovic, who admitted he had not been 100% physically. "It's not the first time or last time that I lost a match."
"To be able to be appreciated by the fans the way I was at the end of the match just gives me more strength and motivation to come back here and try until the end of my career hopefully to get at least a title," he added.
There will be plenty of people who will expect Nadal to cruise to a 10th title here next year but he will turn 29 during that tournament and nothing, not even Nadal, lasts for ever.
"You want to enjoy the moment," he said. "You feel your emotions when you are there and you did it, because you know how much you worked to be there.
"But at the same time, that's not forever. You have a few more opportunities, yes, but you don't know if you're going to win it again."
Nadal will not have much time to enjoy his triumph, though, as he heads to Germany for the grass-court event in Halle, the build-up to what he hopes will be a successful Wimbledon, having gone out in round one last year, and round two in 2012.
"I want to try to play well again in Wimbledon," he said. "I'm healthy, that's the most important thing. I hope my knee will have the positive feeling on grass because I feel my knee better than last year in the rest of the surfaces."
Djokovic will lick his wounds and then come again, at Wimbledon. That is what champions do.