- Associated Press - Monday, June 11, 2012

PARIS (AP) - While a bank of photographers took pictures for posterity and the front pages of the world, Rafael Nadal lovingly studied the champions’ names _ the likes of Bjorn Borg, Roger Federer and, of course, his own _ engraved on the base of the French Open trophy. A huge grin dawned on his face like sunrise. He looked like the happiest person on the planet.

And yet, minutes later, down in the bowels of the Roland Garros arena where Nadal had just made history, his uncle and coach was talking not about the brilliance of the best clay-court player men’s tennis has ever seen, but about his rotten luck. The point Toni Nadal was making was that his nephew’s career could have been even more stellar if he had been playing in another era _ one without Federer and now, increasingly, Novak Djokovic _ his defeated opponent in this French Open final.

“Unlucky, unlucky, oh yes,” uncle Toni said. “If there wasn’t Federer, perhaps Rafael would have been No. 1 for four years. But with Federer, that was impossible.”

He is right, of course. But wrong, too.

Nadal would almost certainly have more major titles by now _ this record seventh French Open crown took his total to 11 _ if not for Federer and Djokovic. Without those two stones in his shoes, Nadal could have ruled alone at the top of tennis for years.

But would tennis fans have cared as much about the men’s game as they do now? No. And would Nadal have become such a good player if first Federer and now Djokovic hadn’t forced him to improve? Probably not.

“To just watch these top players push each other, I don’t think there’s any much further to push,” Steffi Graf, a 22-time major winner on the women’s side, said before this latest momentous chapter in the Djokovic-Nadal-Federer rivalry. “Men’s tennis, definitely, is at the highest it has ever been.”

Like musketeers, they’re even more glorious as a trio. By building this golden era of tennis together, they share in its glitter. It may sometimes seem like a curse for Toni Nadal, but it is precisely because his nephew is tested so often against opponents of such high quality that we can be absolutely sure of his and their greatness.

To beat each other, they have to lift their game to the highest of standards. All three have been made bigger and stronger by their rivalry, not diminished by it. They are each other’s poison, but also each other’s magic potion that makes them look good. Together, they have now won 28 of the last 29 majors. So, in men’s tennis, it is them on one plane, everyone else on another, and looks likely to stay that way for the immediate future, at least for Nadal and Djokovic. Both in their mid-twenties, they have more time than Federer, 30, to make even more of a mark.

“They are doing something to one another that hasn’t been done before,” said three-time French Open champion Mats Wilander. “Borg made (John) McEnroe a better player, but Borg quit. And Federer made Nadal a better player, and Federer didn’t quit. And Djokovic has beaten the hell out of Nadal, and Nadal didn’t quit. So I think they’re a very special three players that are not afraid of one another. They’re not mentally really disturbed by one another. They just tactically, technically can’t handle the other guy. It’s very interesting.”

Had he won his first French Open final, Djokovic would have become the first player since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold four majors at the same time.

But Nadal, for his mental health, needed this victory more. Another loss in a major final to the world’s No. 1 would have been the fourth in a row for Nadal, an unprecedented Grand Slam of losses that would have done untold damage to the Spaniard’s confidence.

So he came to this match talking as though he had swallowed a library of self-help motivational books _ “I will be there fighting,” “I can’t let him feel comfortable,” “I have to play aggressive, I have to play my game” _ and executed his plan for the first two sets until rain Sunday made the balls play like grapefruits and took the sting off Nadal’s shots.

If looks could kill, there’s a patch of red clay on the Philippe Chatrier showcourt at Roland Garros that would need last rites. That was where Djokovic’s backhand service return landed on the very first point of the fourth set, with the tide turning Djokovic’s way after he won the third. Nadal swung his racket, missed the ball entirely and, convinced he’d had a bad bounce from the increasingly sodden clay, stared furiously at the offending spot. That captured how the wet messed with Nadal’s mind and his tennis.

Nadal can count himself lucky that the referee intervened two games later, sending them home until Monday. But he doesn’t owe his eventual 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 victory to luck. He won as he often does, by soaking up pretty much everything thrown at him and returning it with interest and lashes of topspin.

Nadal is so at home at Roland Garros that the ballkids know, seemingly without being told, to lay out a towel on the red clay next to his bench so his white equipment bag doesn’t get dirty. Beating him was always going to require Djokovic’s very best tennis, and he only delivered that in patches. To breach Nadal’s defenses, Djokovic was forced to aim for the sidelines. Often, the risk didn’t pay off. But he did have some success with serve and volley and a few elegant lobs over Nadal’s head _ variety that may help him unlock the riddle of beating Nadal on his best surface next time.

“How much is he going to improve on clay? So much,” said Wilander. “After today, he’s going to figure, ‘OK, I could have won that match if I do this and this, and I work on my forehand and maybe come in a little more, maybe more surprise serve and volley. Three or four points makes a big difference.’ He’s right there. They better watch out for him on clay next year, because he’ll be heading in the other direction, I think. I really do.”

What a prospect. For many, Federer is the greatest player in tennis history. His record 16 major titles give his fans a gilt-edged argument. Without Nadal, Federer would have had more. Without Federer, so might Nadal. And, without them, Djokovic would not have been forced to hone himself into the force he has become _ formidable enough to still be ranked No. 1 despite this defeat.

A golden era, indeed.

“I have great rivals,” Nadal said. “For me, you can feel unlucky or lucky. Both.”

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester