• What the Deuce

Dirt fighter Nadal shows his tough side

Jo Carter June 7, 2011
Nadal nervous about grass court transition

While the image of Rafael Nadal sinking his teeth into the Coupe des Mousquetaires has become a common sight, the nature of his sixth French Open title showed an unfamiliar side to the Spaniard.

"The real Rafa is both the Rafa who wins and the Rafa who plays well and the Rafa who suffers and doesn't play that well," Nadal said after equalling Bjorn Borg's record of six French Open titles.

If Nadal's first title on his Roland Garros debut was the most special, and his 2008 triumph the most emphatic, then his latest triumph in Paris is surely the most satisfying.

For a man who has won 227 of 245 matches on clay in a ten-year career and has lost just one match in seven years at the French Open, he is used to dominating life on the red dirt.

He waltzed to the title last year without dropping a set, but suffered a real scare in the first round against John Isner. It was not vintage Nadal, but ultimately he was too good for everybody else in Paris.

Three years ago Nadal thrashed Federer 6-1 6-3 6-0 in the most one-sided French Open final since 1977 - this year it was a very different story.

The stats tell the tale of the match. While Nadal finished the match with 39 winners and only 27 unforced errors, Federer's numbers were greater on both counts - 56 unforced errors and 53 winners.

By his own admission, it was Federer's form that ultimately decided the outcome of the match. Federer had periods of brilliance, notably in the opening stages and at the end of the third set, but he was unable to sustain his challenge.

"It's always me who's going to dictate play and decide how the outcome is going to be," Federer said. "If I play well, I will most likely win; if I'm not playing so well, that's when he wins."

Nadal was made to work hard for his victory by Roger Federer © Getty Images

Nadal, who celebrated his 25th birthday in Paris last week, is now into double figures, having claimed his tenth grand slam title. He is still six away from Federer on 16, but he is closing the gap at a dangerous rate of knots.

Sunday's final was not in the same bracket as their 2008 Wimbledon epic, but it epitomised how the two men approach the game. While Federer was at his happiest when he was dominating the sport, Nadal seems happier having triumphed in the face of adversity - or at the very least feeling like he earned his prize money.

"Sometimes when you fight a lot to win, when you try your best in every moment to change the situation, it makes the title more special," Nadal said after his victory.

"For example, in 2008 I think I played better than ever, but I finished the tournament and I didn't feel that I won Roland Garros because I won in three sets. When you come back after a tough situation, it makes the tournaments and the victories more special for sure."

Last year Nadal came into the French Open on the crest of a wave - having secured an historic clean sweep on the clay, while this year his confidence was undoubtedly dented by four defeats to Novak Djokovic.

While Djokovic stole Nadal's crowns in Madrid and Rome, Nadal ultimately had the last laugh as he claimed the title that mattered - and by doing so, hung onto his No. 1 ranking.

But the hard work doesn't stop now. While Djokovic failed to leapfrog Nadal in Paris, he is still breathing down his neck - just 45 points behind in the race for the top spot.

With another 2000 ranking points to defend at Wimbledon, the pressure is still firmly on Nadal - ultimately whether he emerges as world No. 1 after Wimbledon is not in his own hands, but you can be assured he won't give it up without a fight.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Jo Carter Close
Jo Carter is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk