PARIS - Scurrying along the baseline as only he can, sliding through the red clay that he rules, Rafael Nadal stretched to somehow dig the ball out of a corner and fling it back over the net - once, twice, three times - during a 14-stroke exchange that ended when Robin Soderling sailed a shot long.
The French Open final was all of seven points old, and the message was unmistakable: Nadal's knees are fine now, which means he is an entirely different player from the one Soderling stunned at Roland Garros in 2009.
That was the first loss of Nadal's career at this tournament, and it remains the only one.
His body sound, his mind at ease, Nadal played his unique brand of relentless, perpetual-motion tennis to handily beat the No. 5-seeded Soderling of Sweden, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4, yesterday. Nadal won his fifth French Open championship, his seventh major singles title overall, and earned a return to No. 1.
"I lost last year because I was not well-prepared, and I had very low morale last year, as well," said Nadal, who will supplant Roger Federer atop the rankings Monday.
"But this time, I'm back," said Nadal, who covered his face with a red towel and sobbed at match's end. "I'm back - and I win."
Yes, Nadal most definitely is back, and he is as good as, or perhaps even better than ever.
"He has more or less one game," Soderling said, "but he does it so well."
Nadal is 38-1 in his career at Roland Garros and, three days after his 24th birthday, stands just one French Open title shy of Bjorn Borg's record of six. For the second time in three years, Nadal won the tournament without losing a set.
As former No. 1 Andy Roddick posted on Twitter: "rafa nadal best ever on clay . . . period." Nadal's uncle, Toni, who has coached the Spaniard since he was 4, called Sunday's performance "one of the best matches I've ever seen Rafael play." Put simply, Nadal was far superior in every aspect, from start to finish, in improving to 38-4 with four titles this season, both tour bests.
He saved all eight break points he faced. He returned well, too, against a guy who tops 140 mph, managing to hit the same number of aces yesterday, seven apiece, even though Soderling had totaled 75, and Nadal only 12, through the semifinals. He made only 16 unforced errors, 29 fewer than Soderling.
But whatever the match statistics, Nadal's sublime scrambling was the difference. Side to side, forward and backward, never relaxing one bit, Nadal nearly always forced Soderling to conjure up more than one brilliant shot to win a single point.