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Nadal: 'This was the final I had to win'

There are times in sport when actions tell you more than any facts or statistics.

Rafael Nadal celebrates his seventh French Open title
Rafael Nadal celebrates his seventh French Open title

As his final serve went agonisingly long, Novak Djokovic hung his head in despair, so close to history but still so far. At the other end of the court, a jubilant Rafa Nadal sank to his knees, tears flowing like almost never before.

In the stands, his family and friends were crying, shouting, celebrating; relief matched with sheer joy after the Spaniard completed a 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 win over the world No.1 for a record seventh French Open title, denying Djokovic a fourth straight grand slam title and a career grand slam in the process.

An ecstatic Nadal ran straight to the back of the court, vaulted into the stands and embraced members of his family, before leaping into the arms of his uncle, Toni Nadal, the man who has been his coach since he first lifted a racket.

It was a reminder, if we needed it, of just how much it means to win the sport's biggest titles.

For Nadal, surpassing the record of six French Open titles he shared with Swedish legend Bjorn Borg was secondary simply to tasting grand-slam glory again, having lost to Djokovic in the past three slam finals.

"If I had lost a fourth final, this would have been very difficult for me," Nadal admitted. "When you lose, it's because you don't deserve the title. So, in my mind, this was the final I had to win. This is why there was a lot of emotion."

After the rain delays of the previous day – rescuing Nadal after losing eight straight games until a final hold of serve – the pair resumed yesterday with Nadal two sets to one in front but a break down at 2-1 in the fourth.

But, from the moment that Nadal broke to get back on terms at 2-2, it was he who held the momentum and it was Djokovic who was playing catch-up.

At 4-5, after the briefest of rain delays, the Serb showed great inner strength to hold serve, but, at 5-6 with Nadal pressing, he could not hang on and a double fault sealed his fate.

Overtaking Borg means there can surely be no doubt that Nadal is the greatest clay-court player the sport has seen.

His fourth-round loss to Robin Soderling in 2009 – when his knees were giving out – remains his only defeat at Roland Garros and since losing to Russian Igor Andreev in 2005, his record on clay reads 214 wins to just seven defeats.

But it is the mental significance that beating Djokovic, in a grand slam final after so much heartache in the past year at his hands, which could yet mean even more to Nadal in the long run.

When Djokovic was beating Nadal to win Wimbledon and the US Open, there were times when the Spaniard looked despondent, unsure of what to do.

In Australia at the start of the year, he almost broke the streak, playing brilliantly and leading 4-2 in the fifth set before Djokovic produced another stunning comeback.

That defeat would have destroyed the belief of many players but somehow, Nadal managed to convince himself that he was getting closer.

Wins over Djokovic in the finals of Monte Carlo and Rome increased his confidence and, for the fourth time in his career, he reached the final in Paris without dropping a set.

There are times when these two giants meet when almost every single point seems to matter, so desperate are they not to give the other any encouragement.

With all due respect to Roger Federer – and with 16 grand slam titles to his name, he deserves respect – Djokovic and Nadal have separated themselves from the rest, at least in the grand slams.

The Paris final was the fourth straight grand slam final between the two and though Federer has been mopping up other titles, he has not won a slam since the start of 2010 and at the age of 30, his ability to match the top two over five sets appears to be on the wane.

For Andy Murray, a quarter-finalist in Paris, his best chances of grand-slam glory remain at Wimbledon and on the hard courts of New York and Melbourne.

Should Djokovic or Nadal falter, he needs to be mentally strong enough to be waiting to take advantage.

But while Nadal will arrive at Wimbledon high on confidence, don't expect Djokovic to be anything other than hugely dangerous.

He knows that reaching his first French Open final was impressive, not least since he came from two sets down to beat Andreas Seppi and saved four match points to defeat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

"I could have lost in this tournament earlier," he said. "I managed to get to the finals for the first time, so I wouldn't change anything.

"Everything in life is a lesson and that's the way it goes. I hope I can come out stronger and better from this experience."

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