Rafael Nadal has proven once again that he’s the undisputed king of clay. Coming into this year’s French Open, there were those who doubted whether the Spaniard could overcome his demons against world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who had beaten Nadal in three straight Grand Slam finals and supplanted him as the top-ranked—and most-feared—player on tour. But the Spaniard showed perhaps his most dominating form at the tournament where he’s been most dominant in his career, topping Djokovic in the rain-delayed final 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5.
It almost didn’t come to pass. Nadal had barnstormed his way through the draw in Paris, losing a remarkable 35 games in six matches—the lowest number of games any player had dropped on the way to a Grand Slam final since Bjorn Borg lost 31 games at the French Open way back in 1981. Perhaps more impressively, Nadal had also won 71 of his 72 service games in the tournament. But then, in the final against Djokovic, it all started to unravel. Up two sets and a break in the third, Nadal started to spiral, dropping game after game to Djokovic, who had suddenly found his form—and began to claw his way into the match.
Nadal finally stopped the bleeding after losing eight straight games, a miserable stretch that saw him drop the third set and go down a break in the fourth. And then came a savior in the form of tournament referee Stefan Fransson. After the match had already been stopped once for a rain delay, a fine drizzle began falling again throughout the third and fourth sets, and Fransson finally decided to pull the players off the court with Djokovic leading 2-1 in the fourth.
Nadal, never one to hide his true feelings when it comes to the ATP Tour or its top brass, was livid that the decision hadn’t been made earlier. “Now we can stop, after one set we cannot move the ball?” he angrily shouted after Fransson as he packed up his bags. “Because the balls did the same one hour ago.” This isn’t the first time Nadal has publicly criticized tournament officials for unsafe playing conditions: Last year at the rain-soaked U.S. Open, he ripped into organizers for putting players back out on slippery courts too soon after a rain delay.
When play resumed in Paris on Monday afternoon, however, the break proved to be just what the Spaniard needed. His ruthless cross-court forehand had returned—as had his intimidating growl. Nadal got the break back and finally finished Djokovic off when the Serbian player uncharacteristically double-faulted on match point.
While Nadal celebrates his record seventh title at the French Open—breaking his tie with Borg at six—Djokovic will be left to wonder what went wrong, and whether he can get his game back on track before he has to defend his title at Wimbledon in two weeks. The world No. 1 was shooting for a place in history, too: He was trying to become the first man in 43 years to win four majors in a row. The French crown would also have completed his career Grand Slam, giving him the one major title that has thus far eluded him.
But Djokovic didn’t look comfortable in Paris—and frankly was lucky just to get to the final after the way he played against unheralded Italian Andreas Seppi, rallying from two sets down to escape with a victory in the fourth round. He struggled against Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarterfinals, too, staving off four match points before finally prevailing in five sets.
Djokovic will still head to Wimbledon as the top-ranked player and the top seed, but will he be considered the favorite? Is Nadal’s victory at the French a sign that the momentum in their recently one-sided rivalry—Djokovic had won seven straight finals against the Spaniard from 2011 to early 2012—is finally shifting to Nadal’s side of the court? A showdown on the green lawns in England could await, but for today, Nadal is going to savor a momentous victory on the brick-red clay of Paris—perhaps one of the most meaningful of his career.