PARIS - There it stood, so tantalizingly close. As Roger Federer tried in vain to solve Rafael Nadal in the French Open final, the silver Coupe des Mousquetaires - the only Grand Slam trophy missing from the No. 1-ranked player's collection - sparkled in the sun behind a baseline, 10 feet overhead.
So successful everywhere else, so superb against everyone else, Federer once more succumbed to Nadal at Roland Garros, one win short of a French Open title, one win short of a fourth consecutive major championship, one win short of a career Grand Slam.
Instead, it was Nadal who made a bit of history Sunday, showing true resolve on the biggest points to beat Federer 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 and become only the second man since 1914 to win three consecutive French Open titles.
"Spin it any way you want - I'm disappointed to have lost. I couldn't care less how I played the last 10 months or the last 10 years. At the end of the day, I wanted to win that match," said Federer, who lost to Nadal in four sets in last year's final, too. "I couldn't do it. It's a shame. But life goes on."
Nadal saved a remarkable 16 of the 17 break points he faced, going 10-for-10 in the first set and 1-for-1 over the last two sets.
While Federer remains convinced he can win this event - "And, eventually, if I get it, the sweeter it's going to taste," he said - the real question might be how many French Opens will end as Sunday's did: with Nadal sprawled on his back, celebrating in the red clay.
"I always thought winning Roland Garros three times in a row would be impossible," said Nadal, the first to do it since Bjorn Borg in 1978-81. "I am very happy, but I am really sad for Roger. He is a friend and I know he is a great champion, whether he wins or loses."
The 21-year-old Spaniard is undefeated at the clay-court major, going 21-0 at a place where his relentless running makes it tough for foes to find space for winners.
He's full of energy, bouncing on the balls of his feet during the prematch coin toss, sprinting to the baseline for the warmup. And then he really gets going. No matter the surface, but especially on clay, Nadal gets to nearly every shot, making opponents hit four, five, six terrific strokes to win a single point. It's quite demoralizing, sort of like hitting against a wall.
"He kind of wears you out or wears you down," Federer said. "He's the type of guy that's going to make you miss. So you can never really say you played great against him, for some reason."
Federer couldn't just make winners, he had to earn them, and that often resulted in a miss. Federer finished with 59 unforced errors - 32 more than Nadal. While Nadal consistently went at the backhand side, it was Federer's forehand, his best shot, that erred 29 times.
"I can't particularly say my backhand or my forehand was bad or my volley or my serving," Federer said with a sigh. "It was all OK. It was just a tough opponent."
Put simply, Nadal pushed Federer around on a muggy afternoon when the temperature touched 81 degrees at the start. The crowd greeted Federer's entrance with a standing ovation, then serenaded him with chants of "Roh-zher! Roh-zher!" during changeovers.
"I expected it," Nadal said. "He was fighting for something absolutely historical, and he is No. 1."
The second-ranked Nadal is No. 1 in their matchups, though. He's beaten Federer every time they've played at the French Open, including in the 2005 semifinals.
Indeed, since the start of 2005, Federer is 4-7 against Nadal - and 199-7 against everyone else. Over the past eight Grand Slam tournaments, Federer is 1-2 against his nemesis - and 53-0 against anyone not named Nadal, with six titles.
"I'm not going to walk on the court thinking he is unbeatable. Maybe he's unbeatable for the others," the Swiss star said, "but I also knew if somebody was capable of winning against him in this tournament, that was me."
Federer certainly got plenty of chances, including five break points in the match's sixth game. Nadal saved each to make it 3-3, and Federer made four unforced errors to get broken at love in the next game - part of a five-game roll for Nadal.
In the second set, the artful Roger emerged, with some fantastic shotmaking and net play. He'd sneak up behind a powerful approach shot and Nadal would flinch first. Federer finally converted a break point, his 12th of the match, to go ahead 4-3, when Nadal put a forehand into the net.
That allowed Federer to win the set, the only one dropped by Nadal all tournament. As they went to the changeover before the third set, Federer looked over his shoulder, perhaps making eye contact with his girlfriend in the stands - or perhaps sneaking a peek at that nearby trophy.
But Nadal was the one who took charge in the third set. Federer won the point on 13 of 14 trips to the net over the first two sets, then went 8-for-20 the rest of the way. Nadal had one passing winner over the first two sets, seven the rest of the way.
Midway through the third set, Federer stopped in the middle of a point, telling the chair umpire the ball was no good because it was too flat. That says something about Federer's marvelous touch - when he's at his best, the racket's an extension of his hand - and about how hard they were hitting.
In some ways, it became a test of wills, and Nadal came out on top. He broke Federer to 2-0 in the third set and to 2-1 in the fourth. And that was pretty much it because Nadal was strong down the stretch, winning 18 of the last 20 points on his serve.
"It's always hard to win a tournament," said Nadal's uncle and coach, Toni. "But if on top of it all you have to beat an opponent like Federer, it's more than difficult."
And yet Nadal did it again.
And, again, Federer is left to contemplate what could have been.
He's won four titles at Wimbledon and three apiece at the U.S. Open and Australian Open, but failed each of the past two years in Paris to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win four straight majors and the sixth man with at least one championship from each Grand Slam.
About 1½ hours after leaving the court, Federer met up with his parents for consoling hugs and kisses on the cheek. The silver tray given to the runner-up was tucked under Mom's arm, like a newspaper.
"You can't win them all," said Federer's father, Robert. "But, honestly, what more can we ask for?"