PARIS – Rafael Nadal's final shot at the French Open was a typically ferocious fallaway forehand, and when it landed for a winner, his momentum and emotions sent him splaying backward onto the clay he loves.
The champion quickly bounded to his feet and headed for the net at a trot. It was time to collect his latest Roland Garros trophy.
Nadal became the first man to win eight titles at the same Grand Slam tournament when he beat fellow Spaniard David Ferrer in Sunday's final, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3. The King of Clay broke the men's record for match wins at Roland Garros, where he improved to 59-1, with his lone defeat against Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009.
For fans enthralled by Nadal's semifinal victory over top-ranked Novak Djokovic, Sunday's final may have seemed anticlimactic. But not for Nadal.
His path to the Roland Garros title was more arduous than usual. He fell behind in each of his first three matches and needed a fifth-set comeback to beat Djokovic.
And the latest title was especially sweet for the Mallorcan because of his comeback after a seven-month layoff caused by knee trouble.
"This one is very special one," Nadal said. "When you have period of time like I had, you realize that you don't know if you will have the chance to be back here with this trophy another time."
Since returning in February, he's 43-2 with seven titles in nine tournaments, and he has won his past 22 matches. With his 12th Grand Slam championship, Nadal moved into a tie for third place with Roy Emerson behind Roger Federer's 17 and Pete Sampras' 14.
Nadal came into the final with a 16-match winning streak on clay against Ferrer, who was a big underdog playing in his first major final at age 31. Ferrer had a few chances to make Nadal uneasy but converted only three of 12 break points and double-faulted five times.
As a result, Nadal was in control throughout, although he did wear a quizzical expression when protesters tried to delay the match in the second set. One man jumped onto the court near Nadal with a fiery flare spurting white smoke, and security personnel wrestled the protester to the ground and quickly dragged him away.
"I just turned there and I watch a guy with some fire, so I got a little bit scared at the first second," Nadal said. "It's one of those things that nobody can prevent. Thank you very much to all the security guys. They did just amazing work."
Other protesters also brandishing red flares climbed to the top of nearby Court Suzanne Lenglen and unfurled a banner calling for the resignation of French President Francois Hollande.
The interruptions were brief, and there was no stopping Nadal. He has lost a total of 16 sets in nine years at Roland Garros and was never in danger of doing so against Ferrer.
"Rafael was better than me," Ferrer said. "He served better; he played very aggressive with his forehand. He didn't make mistakes. He played more regular and consistent than me."
Trophy presenter Usain Bolt watched from the front row wearing sunglasses, even though the day was gray with occasional drizzle. Both finalists grinded away from the baseline, with one rally lasting so long fans began to buzz, then started to shush each other.
The 5-foot-9 Ferrer often wins points by extending them with his dogged defense. But Nadal matched his retrieving skills, and the torque on his groundstrokes eventually had Ferrer reeling.
Nadal misfired more than usual in the early going, perhaps adjusting to slow conditions and feeling the effects of his 4 1/2-hour win over Djokovic. He gave back an early service break and had to erase two other break points in the opening set.
"Rafael, in important moments, he's the best," Ferrer said.
It was the first set Ferrer had lost in the tournament, and at that point, he knew he faced a daunting task. Nadal is 146-3 when he wins the first set in Grand Slam tournaments.
Nadal broke again early in the second set, and then came Ferrer's best chance to reverse the course of the match. At 3-1 he had four break points, but Nadal erased them all, the last with a backhand winner to end a 31-shot rally, longest of the match.
In the final set, Ferrer double-faulted to lose serve and fall behind 5-3, and Nadal needed only five more points to close out the victory. After accepting a hug from Ferrer, Nadal raised his arms, and the roar from the center court crowd reached a crescendo.
"These are things I was watching on TV when I was a kid," Nadal said. "I thought, `I hope I can make it on such a court.' My dream became reality."