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Rafael Nadal's feat off the charts

PARIS -- Rafael Nadal is listed at 6-foot-1, 188 pounds, but he looks much bigger.

He hits the heaviest forehand in tennis, which is even tougher to return because he is left-handed. That torque routinely sends the ball bounding up and out of an opponent's comfort zone. And then there is his dazzling speed, an astonishing ability to retrieve and turn defense, on a dime, into offense. And more than any of these attributes, Nadal has impeccable -- and unmatched -- mental toughness.

His uncle Miguel was a professional soccer player of some skill, and Rafa could probably play free safety in the NFL. But tennis was his sport of choice, and one week into his 28th year, he has already established himself as one of the best players ever.

On clay, all of Nadal's attributes are even more effective. And at Roland Garros, on the largest clay court in the world, he is virtually unbeatable.

Sunday, on a cool, drizzly afternoon on Court Philippe Chatrier, where the only real drama involved a shirtless, flare-carrying protestor, Nadal defeated fellow Spaniard David Ferrer, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3. It was his unprecedented eighth French Open title in nine tries.

"I never like to compare years, but it's true that this year means something very special for me," Rafa said afterward. "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."

Somehow, his moniker, "The King of Clay," fails to capture the majesty of his dominance, for Rafa has now:

• won 59 of 60 matches in this hallowed place, the best record for any player at any Grand Slam. And he turned 27 only a week ago.

• surpassed all rivals for consistent excellence in a single Grand Slam. Roger Federer and Pete Sampras each won seven Wimbledon titles, but no one has ever raised the trophy eight times in any major. Rafa, a notorious creature of habit, has.

• beaten Ferrer, his good friend, Davis Cup teammate and frequent video-game partner nine straight times and has taken 16 of their past 17 matches. Ferrer, it should be mentioned, is the No. 5-ranked player in the world.

• won 12th Grand Slam singles title, distancing him from the (truly) great Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg.

And, now that he has 12 major titles, is it too early to think he might actually catch Federer and his record of 17?

"Of course," Nadal said, "winning 17 Grand Slam titles, that's miles away from me. I'm not even thinking about it." Even if it's true, that doesn't mean the rest of us can't.

To be honest, the imminent threat of rain was far more concerning than anything Ferrer might do. He is a gifted counterpuncher, with extraordinary hand-eye coordination. But, giving nearly four inches and nearly 30 pounds in the tale of the tape, Ferrer doesn't have a single weapon -- beyond guile -- that can hurt Rafa.

Afterward, Ferrer said the wet court hurt him more than Nadal.

"To beat Rafael in clay court, I need to play more aggressive," Ferrer said. "But when the court is slower, it's very difficult. He has more power than me with his shots, and it's very difficult for to beat him."

Because of the vagaries of the ATP World Tour ranking system, Nadal will actually lose a spot on Monday.

"It's strange, no?" Ferrer said. "I lost the final against Rafael, but tomorrow I am going to be No. 4 and him No. 5.

"I prefer to win here and to stay No. 5."

It was a dreary day in Paris. It began with the top of the Eiffel Tower shrouded in fog. Drizzle -- more of a mist, really -- didn't prevent the 11 a.m. doubles legends from playing on Court Suzanne Lenglen or affect the women's doubles final an hour later on Chatrier.

Nadal won the first set by breaking Ferrer's serve twice, the decisive one coming at 3-all, when Rafa reached out and knocked a cross-court backhand past the oncoming Ferrer. Five minutes into the second set, the rain became more significant. Nadal and Ferrer didn't seem to notice. Nadal broke Ferrer in the second game of the second set.

Ferrer, to his credit, kept swinging. He had two break points in the fifth game, but Rafa erased them both, the second with a hard-to-believe backhand cross-court pass.

With Rafa serving at 5-1, there were, literally, fireworks. A protester, carrying a flare, ran onto the court, sending security men scrambling. The man and his red flare were body-slammed into the player entrance behind Nadal. And although Rafa laughed it off, he seemed rattled and Ferrer broke him to make it 5-2.

Naturally, Nadal broke him back to take the second set, and the coronation was officially under way.

Technically, Nadal was the No. 3 seed here because his ranking dropped during a long injury sabbatical. Eleven months ago, he was upset in the second round at Wimbledon and didn't take the court again for seven months. Gradually, the torn patella tendon in his left knee mended, and he returned in February for the modest South American clay-court season.

All Rafa did was get to the final of every tournament he played -- nine, including this fortnight at Roland Garros.

Here, he was physically compromised as the tournament progressed. Coming off a spectacular five-set, 4-hour, 37-minute semifinal victory over No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic, Nadal had logged six more hours of court time than Ferrer, who hadn't dropped a set.

The way Rafa played Sunday, you never would have known.

"Eight times here is a lot," Rafa said, stating the obvious. "I never thought about that. But, sure, I will keep practicing with the same passion and intensity to bring my tennis to the highest level possible, no? As I always say, I don't know if I can do it, the only thing I am sure is I will try; and I will."

In a news conference the day before the match, Nadal paid tribute to Ferrer and, frankly, may have oversold him.

"I don't feel favorite," Nadal said. "He's a player that brings you to the limit. He's a player that if you are not playing perfect, you will be in big, big trouble."

But perfection for Nadal at Roland Garros -- or something very close to it -- is standard stuff.

That six-time gold medal sprinter Usain Bolt presented the winner's trophy was appropriate, because Nadal has lapped the field. He leaves the comfort of clay now for the grandeur of grass. Don't think he won't be a factor at Wimbledon.

Nadal is a two-time champion at the All England Club and a five-time finalist. He and Djokovic won't play a warm-up tournament and should be fully rested for another go. Andy Murray, the Olympic champion on his home court, is competing this week at Queen's Club.

Nine years ago, on the cusp of his 18th birthday, Nadal visited Roland Garros for the first time. A stress fracture in his left ankle forced him out of the tournament, but he returned a year later and won it, defeating Mariano Puerta in the final.

A fourth-round loss to Robin Soderling in 2009 marks the only time Nadal has been beaten here.

Rafa needed a little time to compose himself before his last serve, but there was no warning for a violation. And when he crushed a forehand cross court, he fell, spread-eagled, in typical fashion onto his back.

Nadal has another superlative to consider: He has now won a Grand Slam in nine consecutive calendar years. Bjorn Borg (1974-81), Pete Sampras (1993-2000) and Roger Federer (2003-10) all managed to do it for eight straight seasons.

Furthermore, no man before Sunday had ever missed two consecutive Grand Slams and come back to win the next one.

No one until Rafael Nadal.