PARIS -- If Rafael Nadal truly was going to be challenged, if his bid for an unprecedented eighth French Open championship would be slowed even a bit, this might have been the moment.
Leading by a set and a break 70 minutes into Sunday's final against David Ferrer, another generally indefatigable Spaniard, Nadal faced four break points in one game. The last was a 31-stroke exchange, the match's longest, capped when Nadal absorbed Ferrer's strong backhand approach and transformed it into a cross-court backhand passing shot.
Ferrer glared at the ball as it flew past and landed in a corner, then smiled ruefully. What else was there to do? Dealing with Nadal's defence-to-offence on red clay is a thankless task. His rain-soaked 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 victory over Ferrer on was Nadal's record 59th win in 60 matches at the French Open and made him the only man with eight titles at any Grand Slam tournament.
"I never like to compare years, but it's true that this year means something very special for me," Nadal said, alluding to the way he managed to come back from a left-knee injury that sidelined him for about seven months.
"When you have a period of time like I had," he added, "you realize that you don't know if you will have the chance to be back here with this trophy another time."
But he does it, year after year. He won four French Opens in a row from 2005-08, and another four in a row from 2010-13.
"Rafael was better than me," said Ferrer, who had won all 18 sets he'd played the past two weeks to reach his first Grand Slam final at age 31. "He didn't make mistakes."
A week past his 27th birthday, Nadal now owns 12 major trophies in all -- including two from Wimbledon, one each from the U.S. Open and Australian Open -- to eclipse Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver and equal Roy Emerson for the third-most in history. Nadal trails only Roger Federer's 17 and Pete Sampras' 14.
"Winning 17 Grand Slam titles, that's miles away," Nadal said with his typical humility. "I'm not even thinking about it."
This was Nadal's first major tournament after a surprising second-round loss at Wimbledon last June. Since rejoining the tour in February, he is 43-2 with seven titles and two runner-up finishes. He's won his past 22 matches.
Let's be plain: No one, perhaps not even Ferrer himself, expected Nadal to lose Sunday. That's because of Nadal's skill on clay in general and at Roland Garros in particular, but also because of how Ferrer had fared against his friend and countryman -- and video-game competitor -- in the past.
Ferrer entered Sunday 4-19 against Nadal. On clay, Nadal had 16 consecutive victories over Ferrer, whose only head-to-head win on the surface came the first time they played, in July 2004, when Nadal was 18.
Nadal had yet to make his French Open debut then, missing it that year because of a broken left foot. On May 23, 2005, Nadal played his first match at Roland Garros, beating Lars Burgsmuller 6-1, 7-6 (4), 6-1 on Court 1, known as the "bullring" because of its oval shape.
And so began the reign.
Nadal won a record 31 consecutive matches at the French Open until the fourth round in 2009, when Robin Soderling beat him. In 2010, Nadal started a new streak, which currently stands at 28.
There was occasional shakiness this year. Nadal lost the first set of each of his first two matches, and was pushed to a tiebreaker to begin his third. His fourth match, a straight-set win against No. 15 Kei Nishikori, "was a major step forward," Nadal said. Still, he barely edged No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic in a thrilling semifinal that lasted more than 41/2 hours and ended 9-7 in the fifth set Friday.
-- The Associated Press