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Tennis

Eighth French Open title takes Nadal's career into new realm

Photo: Christophe Ena/AP

Rafael Nadal has more wins at one major than all in the Open Era save Martina Navratilova (Wimbledon).

PARIS -- Here's one of the great ironies of the French Open: the venue is named not for a tennis player but rather for a Gallic World War I aviator, Roland Garros. The man died in 1918, but the grounds are plastered with images of Roland flying his prop planes, posed in his aviator goggles, themes of flight.

And yet the tournament itself is the essence of terrestrial, all ground, no air. The surface is earth itself, a mixture of soil and crushed brick. And there is nothing ethereal about clay-court tennis. It is trench warfare, all toil and trouble, grinding and burrowing. Literally, dirty work.

It is an art, though, and no one -- male, female, alive or dead -- has mastered it as thoroughly as Rafael Nadal has. The Spaniard has now entered the French Open nine times; he has won eight titles, more than any male player has ever claimed at a single major. The latest was a 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 breeze past David Ferrer on Sunday. This Rafael is to clay, what Raphael was to canvas.

Nadal won the 2013 title honestly. Back after a seventh-month absence in the previous year, Nadal struggled through the first week, playing phlegmatically against lesser lights. Against both Daniel Brands (who?) and Martin Klizan (huh?) he lost the first set. Then he gave himself the equivalent of a blistering halftime speech -- "You're going to have to play better or you'll be fishing next week" -- and returned to his familiar self.

"I never like to compare years," Nadal said. "But it's true that this year means something very special for me. Five months ago, nobody on my team dreamed about a comeback like this."

ZACCARDI: Nadal stands alone (again) after protest-marred final

Thanks to the seeding that put rankings ahead of reason, the only two players in the draw with more than an outside chance to win the title played in the semifinals, Nadal engaged his rival, Novak Djokovic in what was a brutal and protracted and tempestuous ground campaign. In the match of the tournament, Nadal prevailed 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3), 9-7. When he finally closed out Djokovic -- the top seed -- Nadal fell to the court, knowing he'd eliminated the only player capable of toppling his reign.

Nadal faced his friend, countryman and kindred spirit, Ferrer in Sunday afternoon's final. Ferrer is a player to be admired, a maximizer of talent whose industriousness plays particularly well on this surface. But Ferrer has no weapons with which to wound Nadal. As expected, Nadal ground him down in a match that was marred when a protestor opposing gay marriage, unaccountably, came to court level and lit a flare a few feet from Nadal.

"Rafael, in important moments he's the best," Ferrer said. "He has everything, no? ... He can play five sets two days ago and today he can play like similar tennis."

Nadal's dominance at Roland Garros

The perceived wisdom is that Nadal wins in Paris by outlasting opponents and playing superior defense. That's not so and certainly wasn't the case Sunday. Though operating almost exclusively from behind the baseline, Nadal dictated play, flung winner after winner (35 in all), including various forehands off his back foot, all applying enough spin to give his shots the flights paths of knuckleballs.

Nadal is now 59-1 at the French Open, a ridiculous record. (Over the last month, he's beaten Roger Federer, Ferrer and Djokovic, each for the 20th time.) But this title takes his career into a new realm. Having just turned 27, he is now only two majors from Pete Sampras' mark -- a record thought to be untouchable a decade ago. He is (cue the truther trolls on both sides) only five majors from tying the great Federer.

Ultimately Nadal's place in history will be determined by how well he performs at the other three majors. Here? They may have named the place for an aviator. But if they ever want to rechristen it in honor of an actual tennis player, there's no doubt who rules the Kingdom of Clay.

Video, photos: Protestor on court with flare

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