Rafael Nadal's shadow danced across the red clay as he bounced up and down during the coin toss. Novak Djokovic spent two sets shadow-boxing the world No. 1 on even terms, then the champion took charge of the fight.
Unleashing his uppercut forehand with vigor, Nadal extended his decade of clay-court dominance and denied Djokovic the career Grand Slam, grinding out a 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 triumph. The king of clay claimed his record-extending ninth Roland Garros trophy and 14th Grand Slam title, matching Pete Sampras for second on the all-time list.
By the end, both were a bit staggered—Djokovic was drained by a queasy stomach, Nadal plagued by a creaky nerves and apparent cramps—but the Spaniard's passion for the fight on his favorite turf remained empowering. The final didn't reach the transcendent height of their four hour, 37-minute semifinal thriller last June, but was nearly as physically punishing and widely well-received: The crowd showered Djokovic with an extended standing ovation afterward.
Advancing aims collided with the world No. 1 ranking on the line in this 42nd meeting of a shifting rivalry. The left-handed top seed, who had never lost a French Open final, needed to establish his forehand down the line to spread the court, while the right-handed second seed, who had never won a French Open final, had to hit his backhand down the line to shrink his opponent's forehand opportunities, as he'd done in winning four in a row against Nadal.
Explosive movers and elastic defenders combined to shrink the largest Grand Slam stage in the game, extending rallies into a series of ongoing dashes. In the first set, Nadal played a sloppy service game and Djokovic made him pay, catching the edge of the sideline with a backhand for double break point, then drawing an error to break for 5-3. Then pressure barged in as Djokovic couldn't find a first serve and faced double break point of his own. But a nervous Nadal tightened up even more, shanking a forehand on the first chance and sailing another on the second, before the Serbian sealed the set in 44 minutes.
Realizing he needed to fire up his intensity and forehand, Nadal sharpened his footwork. Driving one forehand down the line, he danced around a reply, slashing a forehand winner down the opposite sideline. Curling a forehand down the line to complete his strongest spurt of the match, Nadal was recharged with a 3-2 second-set lead.
A flurry of inside-out forehands broke down Djokovic's defense, earning Nadal his first break for 4-2. But he gave it right back, gifting a couple of forehand errors wrapped around a double fault. Gulping deeper breaths between points and looking a little slower off the mark, Djokovic slapped a forehand wide to face double set point. Nadal pounced, pounding a forehand down the line, winning eight of the final nine points to take the second set with a scream and furious double fist pump.
Djokovic slowly swung his head side-to-side trying to stay loose; Nadal responded with a head-turning forehand down the line to set up a smash for an early break point in the third. Djokovic, who had successfully serve-and-volleyed twice before, tried it again, but netted a high volley and hung his head dropping his opening service game. Nadal banged an ace down the middle to back up the break at love for 3-0—his fifth straight game since throwing down those dirt-bomb forehands.
Widely regarded as the game's best returner, Djokovic defused three dangerous servers in succession—Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Milos Raonic, and Ernests Gulbis—to reach his second French Open final, but looked befuddled trying to fend off the bending lefty serves Nadal spun into his body today. Nadal won 50 percent of his second-serve points, fighting off six of nine break points, and his serving under pressure was crucial.
In a near 12-minute seventh game, Djokovic handcuffed Nadal with a deep return to earn break point. The world No. 1 erased the threat with a drop-shot winner, eventually fighting through for 5-2 and inciting an emotional crash-and-burn in his opponent. Djokovic blew a 40-15 lead in the following game, slamming his racquet to the court with such force he dislodged the dampener. A gloomy expression degenerated into queasy dejection when Djokovic sailed a forehand long, then vomited up fluids on court after falling behind two sets to one after two hours and 34 minutes.
Rallying past Rafa, who carried a 65-1 career Roland Garros record onto court, while plagued with a nauseous stomach and gnawing frustration seemed as daunting as a hurdling the Arc de Triomphe. Djokovic sat with an ice towel wrapped around his neck on fourth-set changeovers, but never gave up the fight.
When Nadal made a tremendous defensive stand to break for 4-2, the crowd roared, sensing the end. In the following game, fans erupted in chants of "Nole! Nole!" as Djokovic broke back with a slashing backhand return, then held for 4-all. Nadal navigated one more frenzied round, ending a deuce game by lashing a forehand winner for 5-4.
In the finale, a wobbled Djokovic missed a forehand to face championship point. A bruising three hour, 31-minute battle ended without a final blow as Djokovic spun a double fault and Nadal dropped to his knees in victory.
Nadal says his "love of suffering" is a key to his reign. Love hurts, and he tasted the pain at times today. But he brought the passion to back up that ferocious forehand, chomping the Coupe des Mousquetaires with another romantic bite.
"Every moment is crucial now. All the points are so hard," Nadal said after raising his French Open record to 66-1. "Playing against Novak always is a big, big challenge for me."