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Nadal makes history over frustrated rival

Published: 8:14AM Tuesday June 12, 2012 Source: Reuters

A gaping hole on a smashed-up on-court bench bore testament to how maddening it is to play Rafa Nadal at Roland Garros, as the Spaniard was hailed as the "greatest ever claycourt player" after hoisting the French Open trophy for a record seventh time.

Novak Djokovic found plenty of uses for his racket during a soggy final that spilled into a second day on Monday. The world No. 1 slammed it to the ground, sent debris flying everywhere after smashing it into his courtside bench and even whacked his head repeatedly with it.

But it simply couldn't conjure the strokes that would have allowed the Serb to become the first man in 43 years to win four Grand Slams in a row. Instead, Djokovic, with a sore head and tortured soul, fired a double fault that sent Nadal to his knees following a 6-4 6-3 2-6 7-5 victory.

The high-stakes showdown had started on Sunday afternoon under menacing grey skies, was contested mainly through driving rain and ended almost 23 hours later in a sudden burst of sunshine, with a triumphant Nadal curled into a foetal position in the most famous clay arena in tennis.

On a court that has become a private stage for his jaw-dropping skills, Nadal eclipsed the record he shared with Bjorn Borg and showed the man who had defeated him in the last three Grand Slam finals that this was his personal stomping ground.

But unlike Borg, who quit the sport at 26 - the same age as Nadal is now - the insatiable Spaniard still hungers to extend his astonishing Roland Garros run that now stands at 52-1 with a 7-0 record in the finals.

"He's definitely the best player in history on this surface, and results are showing that he's one of the best-ever players that played this game," Djokovic said after his 27-match winning streak at Slams was ended by Nadal in the three hours, 50-minute duel.

Nadal, though, was not feeling so invincible when he woke up yesterday with a 6-4 6-3 2-6 1-2 lead. As far as he was concerned, the thought of joining Australian Jack Crawford as the only man to have lost four successive Slam finals, was the stuff of nightmares.

"I had lost three Grand Slam finals in a row to him," said Nadal, who had reached the Paris showpiece without dropping a set. "If I had lost a fourth final, this would've been very difficult for me. I was very nervous all night, so in my mind, this was the final I had to win."

He needn't have worried as after only 50 minutes of action on Monday, he was once again cradling the Musketeers' Cup and running his fingers down the list of champions on the metal plate at the base of the trophy, knowing that as of June 11 2012, his name will appear on it more than anybody else's.

Nadal might have rained down on Djokovic's parade, denying him the chance to do something no man has done since Australian great Rod Laver in 1969, but at least Djokovic had the consolation of knowing that he's an intrinsic part of an exceptional era in men's tennis.

If there were any doubts about how this golden trio of Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer measure up to generations gone by, it seems that every time they step on a Grand Slam stage, there's a fresh deluge of eye-watering statistics. They've now won 28 of the last 29 Grand Slams - it would have been 29-of-29 if Federer hadn't blown a two-sets-to-one lead against Juan Martin del Potro in the 2009 US Open final.

All three players have been in a position to win four Slams in row - Federer in 2006 and 2007, Nadal in 2011 and Djokovic this weekend. From 1969 to 2006, only Pete Sampras came close to pulling off the feat in the men's game, in 1994.

The trio have also dominated the top ranking since Federer first climbed to the summit in February 2004.

"The sport is experiencing some really good times now," said the current No. 1. "We're attracting a lot of attention, because we have these two great players and ... myself.

"We really have some charismatic players, a lot of personalities. This is good for tennis."

A French Open final that had so much riding on it proved tricky and exasperating for both players. A day earlier tennis fans has seen the best and worst of Djokovic, but at least he'd got his temper tantrums under control to fight back from two sets and a break down to win eight successive games as persistent drizzle turned the surface into a muddy mess.

That had left Nadal irritated, Djokovic rejuvenated and the encounter on a knife-edge with the Spaniard leading by two sets to one, but a break down in the fourth as the finale headed into third-week finish for the first time since 1973. When the players returned on Monday, though, Roland Garros resembled a ghost-town with most of the boutiques in the grounds closed and only a handful of people milling around the alleyways.

It wasn't long before Nadal started to haunt Djokovic in a half-full Philippe Chatrier Court. The Serb was left whacking his head with his racket within minutes of the restart as he went down break point, after belting a forehand into the net to end a 21-shot rally.

Seconds later, the Serb saw his 2-1 break advantage vanish after a leaping netcord allowed Nadal to blaze an audacious passing shot winner. Djokovic raised his arm to slam another racket, but thought better of it.

He smacked his head again with his racket after coming off second best in yet another 20-stroke plus rally and complained bitterly to the umpire when the rain showers returned with Nadal just one game away from victory.

But the rain gods were not willing to play ball with Djokovic and rapidly cleared away to allow Nadal his moment of glory.