The tennis hierarchy remains intact as Rafael Nadal, the titan of the French Open, battered No. 2 Novak Djokovic 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 on Sunday.
The victory, Nadal's fifth-straight French Open and ninth title overall at Roland Garros, gives him 14 Grand Slam titles -- tying him with Pete Sampras for second overall. Roger Federer remains the all-time leader with 17.
Djokovic double-faulted on the championship point as Nadal dropped to his knees and then hopped into the stands to celebrate with his family. An exhausted, appreciative Nadal addressed the crowd soon after.
"Playing against Novak always is a big, big challenge for me. I was losing against him the last four times, so everytime that I have the chance to beat him, it's because I played to my limit," he said on court following the match. "I think both of us, the last couple of years, we're playing at very high levels, so for him today, I think he deserved to win this tournament and I'm sure he will in the future."
Sunday's final was ultimately Nadal's response to those who questioned his health, focus or age. Nadal typically rolls into the French Open on the heels of a dominant clay court season, however this year was different. He lost at Monte Carlo, and lost at the Italian Open in Rome to Djokovic. He admitted that his confidence wasn't impenetrable. In short, he finally seemed mortal.
In fact, coming into Sunday's final, Djokovic, who had lost to Nadal in their five prior meetings at the French Open, had actually beaten Nadal in four straight matches. But after an impressive opening set, Djokovic, despite his limber defense and elegant groundstrokes, faltered against Nadal's brute strength. Nadal improved his all-time record to 23-19 against the Serbian.
The lesson? Don't doubt a competitor whose career record at the French Open is now an-almost inconceivable 66-1.
After Djokovic took the first set, the momentum wavered before Nadal eventually broke Djokovic to take a 4-2 lead. The world No. 2 clawed back, though, drawing even at 5-5 before Nadal took the final two games. Nadal took the set with a riveting forehand and then pumped his fists in what amounted to his first real show of emotion, the first indication that Sunday's final was a challenge. Nadal's semifinal against Andy Murray wrapped up in 100 minutes, hardly the obstacle that was Sunday's match. While Murray is certainly part of the big four, only Djokovic is currently capable of pushing Nadal to such physical and mental limits.
"First off, I'm sorry for today, but for me always, it's a big pleasure to play against you, the bigger challenge in my career," Nadal said during the trophy ceremony. "I am sure that you will win here in the future, I don't have any doubt about that."
Nadal dominated the third set 6-2, and frusrated the six-time Grand Slam winner so much that at one point, Djokovic slammed his racket on the ground out of exasperation (Djokovic did the same thing in his semifinal victory over Ernests Gulbis). Throughout the fourth set, Djokovic wouldn't concede against Nadal, although there was nothing he could do once Nadal found his typical rhythm. He continued talking to himself, looking dejectedly into his guest box, and he even hit himself in the head with his racket to try and spur his focus. Nothing would work against Nadal's searing line shots and improbable touch.
Credit Djokovic for fighting and winning four games in the final set, but Nadal wasn't to be beaten in his most beloved tournament.