PARIS — There was never any question that the Spanish national anthem would be played for the French Open men's singles winner Sunday. And for most tennis watchers, there was no doubt which Spaniard would be the one to hold the trophy aloft.
Rafael Nadal cemented his reputation as the sport's greatest-ever exponent on clay by scything down countryman David Ferrer, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3, to harvest a record-extending eighth French Open title. No man has ever claimed the same Grand Slam tournament as many times, or won as many matches, 59, on the red clay of Paris.
Nadal, 27, has failed to conquer Roland Garros only once since 2005, when he won the French Open in his first try, and on Sunday neither the tenacious play of his 31-year-old compatriot nor the histrionics of some protesters — including one man who tried to storm onto the court with a lighted flare — could impede his march to a 12th major title.
Only Swiss virtuoso Roger Federer, with 17, owns more Grand Slam titles among active men's players. Nadal now ranks third on the all-time list of major winners, moving past former greats Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver to tie Roy Emerson. Federer and Pete Sampras, with 14, are the only players ahead of him.
His triumph over Ferrer, a friend and foe, on a gray, drizzly day continued an astonishing comeback that began in February, when Nadal returned to the tour following a seven-month layoff to rest a dodgy knee.
He survived a marathon semifinal against top-ranked Novak Djokovic on Friday and wore tape below the troublesome left knee Sunday, but his speed and agility did not appear hampered.
"Very happy, very emotional, very important victory for me," Nadal said after the final. "Five months ago, nobody of my team dreamed about one comeback like this, because we thought that [was] going to be impossible. But here we are today, and that's really fantastic and incredible."
By a quirk of rankings math, Ferrer will actually leapfrog Nadal — who as defending champion could gain no extra points — to No. 4 in the world simply by having made it to the final.
"It's strange, no? I lost the final against Rafael, but tomorrow I am going to be No. 4 and him No. 5," Ferrer said, then added: "I prefer to win here and to stay No. 5."
Ferrer is known as one of the workhorses on the men's tour, a consistent performer who is consistently overlooked because of the star wattage of Federer and Nadal as well as the ascent of Djokovic. Sunday's was Ferrer's first Grand Slam tournament final; by contrast, it was Nadal's 17th.
Both men are dogged defenders who specialize in retrieving balls that other players give up for lost, putting in enough mileage sprinting back and forth and side to side for an SUV to run out of gas. It seemed only fitting that the fastest man on Earth, Olympic gold-medal sprinter Usain Bolt, presented the champion's trophy Sunday.
Although Ferrer often gave as good as he got from both wings, Nadal was the superior striker. The younger Spaniard used his racquet as both cudgel and needle, bludgeoning his opponent with groundstrokes of ferocious spin or threading shots through narrow openings that few others would attempt. His face was constantly twisted into a mask of malice aforethought as he whacked the ball over the net with as much precision and power as he could.
The match began on a tentative note, with both men holding and losing serve in the first four games as they sought their rhythm. The drop in temperature from the day before and the moisture-laden air slowed down the ball, which made it tough for Ferrer to charge the net the way he had last month in Rome, where he snatched a set from Nadal in their most recent encounter.
"To beat Rafael on clay court, I need to play more aggressive, to finish the points at the net, to play my best tennis," Ferrer said. "But when the court is slower, it's very difficult. He has more power than me."
At 3-3 in the first set, Nadal's two-handed backhand scooped a quicksilver winner over the net to earn the break he needed, though he added one more for good measure.
He went up a gear in the second set, firing winners almost at will as a few raindrops spattered the red dust and tournament officials waited on the sidelines to give the signal to halt play if necessary.
Down 1-0, Ferrer watched helplessly as his compatriot whipped three winners in a row to break his serve, one off the backhand and two from the forehand. More unplayable shots whizzed past Ferrer to put him in a 3-1 hole against his surging opponent.
The next game produced the finest rally of the match: a 29-stroke exchange of punch and counterpunch, with short balls and even shorter angles, that finally ended when Nadal cracked a backhand cross-court shot past Ferrer to save a break point.
The only unexpected drama erupted minutes later when a few protesters near the top of the stadium began shouting their opposition, apparently, to France's recent legalization of same-sex marriage. A masked, shirtless man trying to make the same point then jumped onto Nadal's side of the court holding a flare spewing pink sparks. Security officials swiftly wrestled him down and hustled him out.
"I felt a little bit scared at the first moment because I didn't see what's going on. I just turned there and I watch a guy with some fire, so I got a little bit scared," Nadal said afterward. "It's one of those things that nobody can prevent. Just can say thank you very much to all the security guys."
The disturbance seemed to rattle him on the court, at least temporarily: He served for the set at 5-1 but double-faulted on his way to dropping the game. Although Ferrer said the incident did not affect him, he fared no better, double-faulting twice to lose the following game — and the set — at love.
Trailing 4-3 in the final set, Ferrer went for too much, pushing a shot just long on break point to allow Nadal to serve for the title. After 2 hours 16 minutes of play, the clay-court maestro slapped a final forehand winner from back on his heels, then fell flat on his back in the dirt in joy, covering his face with the bandaged fingers of his hands.
To protect his body, he has withdrawn from a tuneup grass-court tournament before Wimbledon kicks off this month. Although he loves the most prestigious tournament in tennis, winning another title at Roland Garros has already exceeded his expectations.
"I am going to try my 100% to be ready for there and to play good tennis there," Nadal said of Wimbledon. "But I'm in a position that I can take everything with a little bit more relax. Everything went much better than what I thought."