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French Open 2014: Nadal equals Sampras with ninth Paris crown

Rafael Nadal with his ninth Roland Garros title
by Alexandra Willis
Sunday 8 June 2014

Rafael Nadal defied recent form to defeat Novak Djokovic over four sets to claim his ninth singles title at Roland Garros, and 14th Slam in total. Wimbledon.com reports...

Don't take anything for granted. It is one of Rafael Nadal's favourite truisms. Along with proclaiming that he's not the favourite. But sometimes it's hard to take him seriously. On the basis of his history at Roland Garros, his ease of passage through the draw, the history that was at stake, he was never not going to beat Novak Djokovic for a 23rd time, one more denying the Serb the career Grand Slam he so desperately craves. But on the basis of their last three meetings, all three of which ended in wins for Djokovic, on the basis of how quickly things can go wrong physically for Nadal (see Australian Open final 2014, Stan Wawrinka), and, as always, the fact that nothing is ever certain, there was still that nagging doubt. Was this perhaps not the year for the King of Clay?

The doubt grew to more than a whim as Nadal surrendered the first set, handed back a break in the second, and looked rather far removed from an eight-time Roland Garros champion. Djokovic by contrast was all a-swagger, chest puffed out, playing with the confidence of one who knew what he had to do. And who felt he could do it. In nine of their previous 11 Grand Slam meetings, whichever of the pair captured the first set, went on to win. History was in Djokovic's favour.

But that was as far as it went. Rather like Maria Sharapova proved on her march to her second Roland Garros title, the greatest champions find something else when they look at their most vulnerable. Thus, as Djokovic served to send the second set into a tie-break, Rafa remembered who he was. He found his swing, retrieved his depth, and reeled off five games in a row to level the final at one-set all, and go a break up in the third. It proved to be irreparable.

As Nadal ground winner after winner into the clay, taking the third set 6-2, Djokovic's baseline game, so concrete in the first set, began to resemble a sieve, the unforced errors flowing freely. His head dropped. 

An early break in the fourth for Nadal looked like curtains, but Djokovic broke straight back. It was to be his last play of the game, however. As Nadal held serve for 5-4, it fell to Djokovic to serve to stay in it. He couldn't, the match ending as cruelly as it can do on a tennis court. With a double fault. Winning 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4, Nadal dropped to his knees, face in his hands, a departure from his usual flat-on-his-back celebration. Relief perhaps. Or just exhaustion. 

“I was so strong. I really wanted to defeat him,” Nadal revealed after the match. “I suffered quite a lot, but I found solutions. When there were problems cropping up, I managed to find the solutions when the moments were very difficult. I succeeded. I managed to win the match and the tournament.

“It was very important for me to win that second set. Without that second set, I don't know if I would have this trophy with me now."

In claiming his ninth Roland Garros crown, the 28-year-old now draws level with Pete Sampras at No. 2 in the Grand Slam title-leaders list on 14 major crowns, just three behind Roger Federer's 17.

“Federer has 17 and I have [won] 14 Grand Slams," said Nadal. "[Breaking the record], it's not a source of motivation for me. I'll follow my own path. Then when my career is over, we'll count. I don't really care that much about the records. I'll still play with a lot of intensity. I'll still be motivated.

“To me, winning is the result, the equivalent of lots of effort. Therefore, I feel more serene and personally I'm very satisfied.”

Whether he cares or not, he achieved another record with his victory, his 66th win at Roland Garros, and 35th in a row, becoming the first male player to win a Grand Slam singles title every year for 10 years. 

For Djokovic meanwhile, the wait for the career Grand Slam goes on. 

"It's definitely not easy best of five to play against him in these conditions,” the Serb said. 

With Nadal assured of the No.1 ranking as he goes into Wimbledon, and Djokovic sat firmly at No.2, talk now turns to whether this pair will be contesting another final in exactly a month's time. If that proves to be the case, both the build-up, and the outcome, could be very different. 

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