Paris: His words catching in his throat, Toni Nadal called it "really a miracle" that his nephew is back in the French Open final. Seriously? Miraculous? More like expected, given that Rafael Nadal is 58-1 for his career at Roland Garros, a seven-time champion who will become the only man with eight titles at one Grand Slam tournament if he beats David Ferrer in Sunday's all-Spanish final.
Here is what Uncle Toni, who has coached Rafa since age 4, meant: They harboured doubts about whether a return to the top was possible after Nadal was sidelined for about seven months with a left knee injury. There were times, the younger Nadal said, when "it was impossible to think that I would be here."
After outlasting top-seeded Novak Djokovic 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3), 9-7 in a taut and terrific semi-final that stretched across more than 4-1/2 hours, the third-seeded Nadal referred to his time away, saying, "When these kind of matches happen, you suffer, but I really enjoy these moments, no? I really enjoy suffering, because what's harder is when I am in Mallorca last year and I had to watch these kind of matches on the TV."
Rafael Nadal during the semi-final against Novak Djokovic at Roland Garros. (Reuters)
As Nadal began accumulating Grand Slam titles, the biggest question was how long his body would be able to withstand his always-on-the-move playing style.
Citing bad knees, he decided not to defend his Wimbledon championship in 2009, just weeks after losing to Robin Soderling in the fourth round of the French Open (that remains Nadal's only defeat at his favourite tournament). Nadal's left knee was what held him out of action from last June, when he lost in the second round at Wimbledon, until this February. He missed the London Olympics, the US Open and the Australian Open.
Since returning to the tour, Nadal is 42-2 with six titles, reaching the finals of all nine tournaments he's entered. He's on a 21-match winning streak.
Nadal, who pulled out of next week's grass-court tune-up at Halle, Germany, citing the need for rest ahead of Wimbledon, wears a thick wrap of white tape below his troublesome left knee for each match. "There are weeks when I feel better, weeks when I feel a bit worse," Nadal said. "Sometimes you're more positive; sometimes you're more negative."
Nothing makes him happier on a tennis court than winning at Roland Garros. And no one has done that more frequently than Nadal.
His victory over Djokovic in an epic filled with lengthy exchanges and moments of real drama was Nadal's 58th in a French Open match, equalling the tournament record shared by Guillermo Vilas (who had 17 losses) and Roger Federer (14 losses).
Nadal's seven French Open titles - in 2005-08 and 2010-12 - already are the most in history, and his eighth final appearance sets another mark. The only other men in the last 80 years to win seven trophies at any Grand Slam tournament are Federer and Pete Sampras, who both achieved that total at Wimbledon.
Looking at the bigger picture, Nadal can earn his 12th major championship overall on Sunday, which would move him past Borg and Rod Laver and into a tie for third with Roy Emerson, behind only Federer (17) and Sampras (14).
Nadal, who turned 27 last Monday, would be about 11 months older than Federer was when he got to No. 12. "He likes to compete. He never gives up. I mean, that's an impressive virtue that he has," Djokovic said before falling to 0-5 at Roland Garros against Nadal, 15-20 overall. "Over the years, he's been so consistent and so dominant, on this surface, especially. He's struggled with injuries, came back, and lost only a few matches. ... You've got to respect that."
While Nadal will be participating in his 17th Grand Slam final - he's 11-5, with two losses to Federer and three to Djokovic - Ferrer will be making his debut on such a stage in his 42nd major tournament.
The fourth-seeded Ferrer was 0-5 in Grand Slam semi-finals before eliminating France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-1, 7-6 (3), 6-2 on Friday. Ferrer has won all 18 sets he's played these past two weeks, needing less than 11 hours combined to get through six matches. Nadal, in contrast, has dropped four sets - including the opener in each of his first two matches - and spent nearly 17 hours on court.
At 31, Ferrer would be the oldest French Open champion since Andres Gimeno took the 1972 title when he was 34. Ferrer knows it won't be easy, and not just because of Nadal's tremendous record in Paris. They will be playing each other for the 24th time, and Nadal is 19-4 so far.
"Defeating Rafa is very difficult on any surface; it's even worse on clay," Ferrer said. "But ... I'm going to try to play a beautiful match."