The 28-year-old Spaniard clinched his 14th career Grand Slam title and a fifth in a row in Paris on Sunday with a 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 victory over old rival Novak Djokovic in the pair’s 42nd meeting.
The world number one, whose Roland Garros record stands at 66 wins against just one defeat, also now has 14 majors, the same as Pete Sampras and just three behind the all-time record of Roger Federer.
But one of his first thoughts on Sunday was his 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 defeat to Stan Wawrinka in the Australian Open final in Melbourne in January where he needed extensive treatment on his injured back.
“It’s an amazing, emotional moment for me. I lost the Australian Open final this year when I had a problem with my back. Today tennis has given me back what happened in Australia,” said Nadal.
The Spaniard was quick to praise Djokovic who was chasing a seventh major and a first Roland Garros title which would have made him only the eighth man to complete a career Grand Slam.
His win ended a four-match losing streak to Djokovic and gave him a sixth win in six meetings against the Serb in the French capital.
“Every moment was crucial, all the points were so hard,” said Nadal.
“Playing against Novak is always a big challenge, I have lost to him the last four times. Every chance I have to beat him it’s because I have had to play to my limit. I feel sorry for Novak. He deserves to win this tournament one day and I am sure he will.”
Nadal admitted that the second set was crucial as both players struggled to retain their peak physical condition as sweltering temperatures replaced the cold and damp which had been a fixture of the preceding two weeks.
“I was more aggressive in the second set and that was a positive thing. It was hot and humid, a big change and this affected our performance. We were tired,” he said.
“If I had not won that second set then I don’t know if I would be sitting here with this trophy now.”
– Shout from crowd –
Sunday’s 3hr 31min duel ended on a sour note when Djokovic double-faulted on match point, shaken by a shout from the crowd.
But the Serb refused to lambast the fan.
The Philippe Chatrier court crowd, sensitive to the disappointing ending to the final, accorded Djokovic a moving and lengthy ovation which had the 27-year-old on the verge of tears as he received his runners-up trophy from Swedish legend Bjorn Borg.
“The support of the crowd was big for him and me,” said the world number two who has now lost seven of his 13 Grand Slam finals.
“There’s always a lot of tension. You can’t find excuses in the crowd. It’s part of sport. Life goes on.”
Djokovic, who appeared to vomit early in the fourth set, admitted that Nadal was probably the fresher player as the final progressed in brutal 30-degree heat.
“I was struggling in the third set but I felt better in the fourth,” he said.
“But overall I wasn’t at the level I was at when I beat him in Rome last month. At this level, it takes it out of you. Rafa was the better player in the crucial moments.”
Nadal also refused to condemn the fan who shouted out despite Djokovic having also lost the 2012 final in Paris on a double fault.
“It’s difficult, the only feeling for me was winning,” said the champion. “It was unfair what happened.
“It distracted him more than usual and it was combined with the pressure of facing a match point. I am sorry for him but to finish like this or in another way, it doesn’t make a difference.”