Finishing the previous season on the ATP throne, Rafael Nadal would face a massive challenge in 2011 in the name of Novak Djokovic. Making one of the best starts in tennis history, Novak was the player to beat all the way through the US Open, beating the Spaniard in notable finals and becoming world no.
1 for the first time after Wimbledon. Rafa claimed the title in Monte Carlo and Barcelona (Novak didn't play there), losing in the final against the Serb in Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and Rome, hoping for a better run at Roland Garros.
Winning five titles in the last six years in Paris, Nadal couldn't produce his best tennis, surviving a scare against John Isner in the first round. After that, the Spaniard used a favorable draw to enter the quarters, toppling the two-time finalist Robin Soderling and Andy Murray to advance into another title match at his beloved Major.
Like in 2006, 2007 and 2008, Rafa had to fight for the trophy with Roger Federer, as the Swiss delivered Novak Djokovic's first loss of the season in the semis. On June 5, Nadal forged a hard-fought 7-5, 7-6, 5-7, 6-1 triumph in three hours and 40 minutes for his sixth Roland Garros title, matching the record of Bjorn Borg.
It was the 45th victory for Rafa from 46 encounters in Paris, having to work hard to earn his tenth Major crown. In the previous three Roland Garros finals, Roger converted five out of 31 break chances against Rafa, giving his best in this one following that thrilling victory over Novak in the semis.
Rafa won 13 points more than Roger, delivering more efficient tennis on both serve and return to forge the triumph, saving 10 out of 15 break opportunities. The Spaniard stole Roger's serve on eight occasions, racing towards the finish line in the fourth set when the Swiss finally lost the ground.
As always against Nadal on clay, Federer was eager to keep the points on his racquet and move Rafa from the comfort zone while defending his backhand at the same time. It worked well for him for the first three hours but Nadal was there to win the most critical points and seal the deal in the fourth set when he broke Roger's defense to march towards the triumph.
Federer had more winners but couldn't avoid a huge number of errors, as in the majority of lost matches against Rafa.
Nothing could separate them in the quickest rallies, which was very important for Nadal.
Roger actually won more longest exchanges than his rival, only to lose the match in the mid-range ones where Nadal had a clear edge.
Federer broke in game two on his fourth break chance when Rafa made a huge forehand error, holding at 15 with a smash winner to open up a 3-0 lead. The Swiss served well in the early stages, making another good hold in game seven to move 5-2 up, looking good to conquer the opener.
Rafa saved a set point on serve in the next game when Roger missed an easy backhand drop shot, pulling the break back a few minutes later to reduce the deficit to 5-4. Federer lost his composure, suffering another break at 5-5 and allowing Nadal to land a forehand winner in game 12 and steal the opener 7-5 after 62 minutes, rattling off the last five games!
A forehand winner earned a break for Nadal at the start of the second set, holding at love after a service winner to cement the lead and build the momentum before the rest of the clash. Facing another challenge in game five, Federer hit two aces to fend off two break points, repelling another for an important hold and staying within one break deficit.
That became even more important after a loose service game from Nadal at 4-3, hitting a poor backhand to drop serve and bring Roger back into contention. The Swiss couldn't use this momentum, though, spraying another backhand error in game nine to get broken, allowing Rafa to serve for the set.
Nadal was unable to remain calm, making a forehand mistake on set point before the action got suspended due to rain. When they returned to the court, Rafa wasted another set point and Roger broke back to level the score at 5-5 and extend his chances.
The winner had to be decided in the tie break where Nadal opened a 6-3 gap, blasting a forehand winner to gain a huge two sets to love advantage after two hours and 15 minutes of grueling tennis. After five easy holds in set number three, Roger missed an easy forehand to get broken, pulling it back right away at love thanks to a drop shot winner.
Federer had the momentum in those moments, securing another break at 15 in game 11 with a forehand winner to serve for the set in the next one. Another forehand winner delivered the set for the Swiss, reducing the deficit after three hours and five minutes of entertaining tennis.
Shaken but not beaten, Rafa made a big step in the opening game of the fourth set, saving three break chances for a crucial hold and moving in front when Roger netted a forehand in game four, increasing his chances of finishing the match before the decider.
Federer had nothing more left in the tank after playing on the level terms with Rafa for some 200 minutes, losing serve again in game six and approaching the exit door as Nadal served for the title in the next game. In the manner of a true champion, Rafa fired two winners to create three match points, converting the first after a huge forehand error from Federer to lift his sixth title in Paris and join Bjorn Borg on the immortal list.
"I suffered a lot at Roland Garros and still ended up winning against Roger Federer, who beat Novak Djokovic in the semi-final," said Rafael Nadal.