By Mark Meadows
PARIS (Reuters) - Rafa Nadal had doubted he could seal a sixth French Open title having started in shaky form and with rivals looking imperious, but the Spaniard need not have worried after triumphing with another claycourt masterclass.
His 7-5 7-6 5-7 6-1 victory over his great rival, the in-form Roger Federer, in Sunday's final was a microcosm of the Spaniard's tournament as he equalled Bjorn Borg's record for Roland Garros men's singles crowns.
Ice cool Swede Borg won his six titles in eight years while Nadal has reached that mark in seven and his delight was clear as he sank to his knees on the court that since debuting in 2005 has become a private stage for his audacious skills.
This year had not all been plain sailing though.
The top seed, who has clung on to the world number one spot under pressure from Novak Djokovic, slumped 5-2 down in the first set just as he was two sets to one down in the first round against John Isner in his first five-set match at Roland Garros.
Both times Nadal refused to budge and roared back despite the majority of the crowd supporting the underdog.
On Sunday, the cries of "Roger Roger" rang out across Court Philippe Chatrier but Nadal just got on with his job as he has done for all but one of his career matches on the Parisian clay.
His reward was a 10th grand slam crown, just six short of Federer's record haul of 16.
"I said one week ago I am going to put everything into trying to change the situation, to try to play better and that's what I did," Nadal told a news conference after another epic match of mind-boggling rallies between the friendly foes.
"I try my best in every moment with the right attitude all the time, so finally I was able to play my best when I needed my best. It's a big personal satisfaction to win this tournament, especially when you start without playing your best."
Third seed Federer, who ended second seed Djokovic's 41-match winning streak in 2011 in a classic semi-final, looked back to his best over the fortnight having won the last of his grand slam titles in Australia in January last year.
His 2009 French Open title, when an injury-hit Nadal lost his only match at Roland Garros against Robin Soderling, completed Federer's career slam but without a victory over Nadal in Paris he has never completely banished his claycourt demons.
When Nadal reeled off seven consecutive games from 2-5 in the first set it appeared Federer may capitulate as he did in the 2008 mauling when he managed just four games.
Luckily for those fortunate enough to have tickets and the millions watching on television Federer came back from a 10-minute rain break to play some sublime tennis even if he did concede the second set tiebreak 7-3 with some wayward shots.
With Federer forced to go for broke he netted too many shots and missed some key smashes while over the net Nadal just continued pummelling his mighty forehand into the court's far extremities.
He even produced some stunning volleys as former winners such as Jim Courier and Gustavo Kuerten watched on from the stands with awe.
Federer, who has now lost to Nadal in six of their eight grand slam finals including four in France, played his part in a memorable clash between the pair which few other sports could match for drama and healthy rivalry.
The 29-year-old Swiss was 4-2 down in the third set but broke back for 4-3 to love and then again for 6-5 to revive his noisy supporters in the crowd and leave those waving tiny Spanish flags a little less confident.
When Federer took the third set and went 0-40 up on Nadal's serve in the first game of the fourth set an epic five-setter looked likely. Nadal, though, found another gear and stormed to victory with a remarkable display of clinical efficiency.
Even so, Federer was upbeat.
"Today was a very good match. Overall obviously I'm very happy about the tournament. Obviously you should be disappointed after losing in a grand slam final," Federer said.
"I'm the one playing with smaller margins, so obviously I'm always going to go through a few more ups and downs whereas Rafa is content doing the one thing for the entire time."
With the Rafa-Roger show back in the headlines again after a lull the rest of the year on the men's calendar looks enticing and the respect between them is clear.
"I felt that even though people don't understand how Rafa was able to win this tournament after the shocking start he had, I'm not. He plays better against the better ones, and that's what he showed today," Federer added.
Roll on Wimbledon.
(Editing by Martyn Herman)