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Rafael Nadal seeks history at French Open

He eyes 8th crown in final vs. Ferrer

PARIS — His words catching in his throat, Toni Nadal called it ‘‘really a miracle’’ that his nephew is back in the French Open final.

Seriously? Miraculous? More like expected, given that Rafael Nadal is 58-1 for his career at Roland Garros, a seven-time champion who will become the only man with eight titles at one Grand Slam tournament if he beats David Ferrer in Sunday’s all-Spanish final.

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Here is what Uncle Toni, who has coached Rafa since age 4, meant: They harbored doubts about whether a return to the top was possible after Nadal was sidelined for about seven months with a left knee injury.

There were times, the younger Nadal said, when ‘‘it was impossible to think that I would be here.’’

After outlasting top-seeded Novak Djokovic, 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3-7), 9-7, in a taut and terrific semifinal that stretched across more than 4½ hours, the third-seeded Nadal referred to his time away, saying, ‘‘When these kind of matches happen, you suffer, but I really enjoy these moments, no? I really enjoy suffering, because what’s harder is when I am in Mallorca last year and I had to watch these kind of matches on the TV.’’

As Nadal began accumulating Grand Slam titles, the biggest question was how long his body would be able to withstand his always-on-the-move playing style.

Citing bad knees, he decided not to defend his Wimbledon championship in 2009, just weeks after losing to Robin Soderling in the fourth round of the French Open (that remains Nadal’s only defeat at his favorite tournament). Nadal’s left knee was what held him out of action from last June, when he lost in the second round at Wimbledon, until this February. He missed the London Olympics, the US Open, and the Australian Open.

Since returning to the tour, Nadal is 42-2 with six titles, reaching the finals of all nine tournaments he’s entered. He’s on a 21-match winning streak.

‘‘There are weeks when I feel better, weeks when I feel a bit worse,’’ Nadal said. ‘‘Sometimes you’re more positive; sometimes you’re more negative.’’

His victory over Djokovic in an epic filled with lengthy exchanges and moments of real drama was Nadal’s 58th in a French Open match, equaling the tournament record shared by Guillermo Vilas (who had 17 losses) and Roger Federer (14 losses).

Nadal’s seven French Open titles — in 2005-08 and 2010-12 — already are the most in history, and his eighth final appearance sets another mark. The only other men in the last 80 years to win seven trophies at any Grand Slam tournament are Federer and Pete Sampras, who both achieved that total at Wimbledon.

Looking at the bigger picture, Nadal can earn his 12th major championship overall, which would move him past Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver into a tie for third with Roy Emerson, behind only Federer (17) and Sampras (14).

Nadal, who turned 27 last Monday, would be about 11 months older than Federer was when he got to No. 12. Ferrer was 0-5 in Grand Slam semifinals before eliminating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 6-1, 7-6 (7-3), 6-2, on Friday. Ferrer has won all 18 sets he’s played the past two weeks, needing less than 11 hours to get through six matches. Nadal, in contrast, has dropped four sets — including the opener in each of his first two matches — and spent nearly 17 hours on court.

At 31, Ferrer would be the oldest French Open champion since Andres Gimeno took the 1972 title when he was 34.

‘‘Defeating Rafa is very difficult on any surface; it’s even worse on clay,’’ Ferrer said. ‘‘But I’m going to try to play a beautiful match.”

.   .   .

Top-seeded Bob and Mike Bryan of the United States won their 14th major doubles title by defeating Michael Llodra and Nicolas Mahut of France, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (7-4), in Saturday’s French Open final.

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