They waited it out and Nadal wound up as he has for seven of the past eight years: down on the ground, celebrating a title at a place that feels like a home away from home for the second-seeded Spaniard. He broke the record he shared with Bjorn Borg and beat the man who had defeated him in the last three Grand Slam finals.
"This tournament is, for me, the most special tournament of the world," Nadal said.
After serving his fourth double-fault of the match, the top-seeded Djokovic dropped his head and slumped his shoulders, an emotional two-day adventure complete, and not with the result he wanted.
Djokovic worked his way back into the match with an eight-game run when it was pouring Sunday, but otherwise was outplayed, at the start and the finish.
"He's definitely [the] best player in history ... on this surface," said Djokovic, whose 27-match Grand Slam winning streak ended, "and results are showing that he's one of the best ever."
Can't argue with that. Since his French Open debut at age 18 in May 2005, Nadal is 52-1 for his career at the tournament, the only loss coming to Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009. He's just as good elsewhere on clay, too: Nadal's won eight titles at Monte Carlo, seven at Barcelona, six at Rome.
Asked to explain his success on the surface, Nadal pointed not to his uppercut of a topspin-slathered forehand, or his superior returns of serve, but rather to his movement, his mental fortitude, and this: "I always was scared to lose."
Djokovic gave Nadal reason for added concern, having beaten him in the finals at Wimbledon in July, the U.S. Open in September, and the Australian Open in January. Djokovic was attempting to be only the third man to win four major tournaments in succession, joining Don Budge in 1938, and Rod Laver in 1962 and 1969.
"For us, it was very important to win here now against Djokovic, because we knew that if he won again, the fourth one, then [Rafa] completing a Grand Slam of losses would have been ugly," said Toni Nadal, Rafael's uncle and coach. "And we were very close to doing that."
Instead, his nephew gained ground on Roger Federer's record of 16 Grand Slam titles, tying Borg and Laver for fourth place with 11.
When it was over, Nadal dropped to his knees and covered his face, thick strips of white tape covering the knuckles and fingertips of his racket-wielding left hand.
"When you lose, it's because you don't deserve the title," Nadal said. "So in my mind, this was the final I had to win. That's why I was so emotional."
Most French Open men's titles
Rafael Nadal • 7 (2005-08, 2010-12)
Bjorn Borg • 6 (1974-75, 1978-81)
Henri Cochet • 4 (1926, 1928, 1930, 1932)
Gustavo Kuerten • 3 (1997, 2000-01)
Ivan Lendl • 3 (1984, 1986-87)
Mats Wilander • 3 (1982, 1985, 1988)
Rene Lacoste • 3 (1925, 1927, 1929)