ROME • Rafa Nadal returned to the top of the world rankings yesterday after winning his eighth Italian Open title on Sunday to confirm once more his status as the "king of the clay".
His 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 victory over Germany's Alexander Zverev in the Italian capital ensured the 31-year-old would leapfrog Swiss great Roger Federer to become world No. 1 for a sixth time ahead of the French Open.
With Federer skipping the clay-court season and top seeding long assured, Nadal will head to Roland Garros next week a strong favourite to get his hands on the Grand Slam title for a record-extending 11th time.
"Everything will be different in Paris," Nadal said somewhat disingenuously after his win over the world No. 3 Zverev.
"Of course, a win like this helps but in Paris, the conditions will be different in every respect. Today is the time to enjoy this victory, not for thinking about Roland Garros."
Despite losing his first service game on Sunday, Nadal removed any doubts over his fitness and form heading into the second Grand Slam of the year.
"I played one of the best sets that I played on clay this year. First set was fantastic in terms of everything," he added.
"Feeling, good shots, returning, tactically - everything was great in the first set. All the things that I wanted to do happened."
Zverev, who had won back-to-back clay-court titles over the previous two weeks in Munich and Madrid, hit back to win the second set, but a rain delay disrupted his rhythm and the Spaniard reeled off the last five games to seal his 78th career title.
His 21-year-old German opponent, however, took positives from his performance against the "greatest clay-court player of all time".
"I was not far away from beating Rafa on a clay court in a Masters final," Zverev, who will be the second seed at the French Open, said.
"So I guess I can take that to Paris."