Rafa Nadal extends his legend on the clay of Roland Garros

The Spanish national anthem played out across Court Philippe-Chatrier and the cameras panned to a close-up of Rafa Nadal with his face mask on and his eyes wet with emotion. What was the champion thinking at that moment? Many great athletes have told me that after an important victory there is a moment of elation, followed by a certain feeling of emptiness that is difficult to explain. In which of those two states was Nadal? Meanwhile, at home, we were permitted a feeling of satisfaction that that we have someone like Nadal to represent us, a homely hero who ennobles his country and provides relief in these dark times by winning over those doubting observers who simply by offending him by association offend us all.

Nadal now has 13 Roland Garros titles, the fruit of 100 victories on the Paris clay, where he has lost only twice in his career. One of those was against Novak Djokovic, his opponent on Sunday. There was more at stake than just the Coupe des Mousquetaires, among other things the two players’ places on the overall list of Grand Slam winners, which Nadal now sits atop alongside Roger Federer while Djokovic has 17, a prudential distance. Then there is the historic head-to-head between the two greats, which now runs to 56 matches with Djokovic holding the advantage at 29-27. The rivalry between the two is admirable. How many hours has it been now? Probably only chess grand masters Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov have spent more time face to face.

Nadal the Paris grand master

What I admire most about Nadal is his ability to keep waging battle when the war is already won. It has been 15 years since he first won Roland Garros and he always returns with the same hunger. Neither is his tennis limited to the red dirt: he has a career Grand Slam to his name but it gives me particular pleasure to observe his reign in Paris. The English invented tennis but the French knew what to do with it. It is to them we owe the Olympics, the Tour de France, the World Cup and the European Championship… and Roland Garros, which bears the name of a pioneering aviator, hero and victim of the First World War. Winning in Paris also carries a special bonus: that photograph at the Eiffel Tower, a timeless snapshot of a job well done.