PARIS - Knees covered in clay, eyes wide and mouth agape, Rafael Nadal scaled the railing at Roland Garros and sprinted up the stands.
His family stood there waiting for him, and Nadal hugged them, one after another, until he came to his coach, his uncle Toni, who lifted his nephew off the ground.
The occasion called for an exaggerated celebration, for the history Nadal cemented, for not just his latest French Open title but his seventh one. Over the years, dozens of men’s champions have conquered the famous red clay here and held the silver championship trophy above their head. But none had triumphed a seventh time - until Monday.
The final lasted for two days, through two rain delays, through wind that whirled and rain that spit and poured, for four tension-filled sets. It featured the usual suspects, Nadal and Novak Djokovic, rivals who also met in the finals of the three previous Grand Slam events.
It took Nadal a split-second to realize the match had ended, after Djokovic’s second serve landed behind the line. The final score was 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5. It was Nadal’s 11th Grand Slam singles title and his 50th ATP World Tour-level singles championship, but Monday only one number really mattered.
Lucky No. 7.
There was little luck involved, of course. There never is with Nadal on clay. In victory, he ran his record at Roland Garros to 52-1 and provided more evidence for the argument that he is the greatest clay-court player ever.
While it remains difficult to compare players from different eras, even those who believe Bjorn Borg deserves the mythical clay championship belt must now concede that Nadal has won more French Opens (seven and counting, to six). This gives Nadal a statistical edge, if nothing else. Of course, Borg retired at 26, the age Nadal turned last week.
“He’s definitely the best player in history on this surface, and the results are showing he is one of the best ever players that played this game,’’ Djokovic said.
There are supposed to be no certainties in sports, no absolutes. Then there is Nadal on clay courts, where victory is all but guaranteed, same as with Floyd Mayweather Jr. inside a boxing ring.
For two weeks, Nadal insisted this French Open meant no more to him than any other, as if he was trying to banish the prospect of history from his mind. Djokovic, too, had more than a trophy to play for, as a championship would have marked his fourth consecutive major title, a Grand Slam albeit not in the same year. Rod Laver, in 1969, was the last man to hold all four titles simultaneously.
Nadal said he felt anxious throughout the night after play was suspended Sunday in the fourth set. He remained that way three hours before play resumed. He felt the same two hours before. And one hour before. In fact, Nadal said he did not feel ready until three minutes before what was essentially the second half.
“I was more nervous than usual,’’ he said.
Through his first six matches, Nadal won 71 of 72 service games and lost 35 games total, the least in a major tournament since Borg lost 31 games before the final in 1981. Nadal befuddled and battered some of the best players in the world, all of whom lost to him and shrugged.
In defeat, Djokovic did not blame the overnight delay, which derailed his momentum. He did not blame the fan who screamed before the second-to-last serve. Instead, he credited Nadal, as the debate started anew: best clay-court player ever? Nadal? Or Borg?
Justin Gimelstob, a Tennis Channel analyst, said last week that Nadal would go down as the greatest clay-court player.
“By the time he’s done, it’ll be borderline unimaginable what he racks up on clay,’’ Gimelstob said.
Nadal declined to weigh in on the debate afterward. He said he did not know “if I am the best or not.’’ He added, “I’m not the right one to say that.’’