Chasing down shots all over the court, the relentless Spaniard won his fifth French Open title and avenged his lone Roland Garros defeat, beating Robin Soderling 6-4, 6-2, 6-4.
Nadal improved to 38-1 at Roland Garros, with the only loss to Soderling in the fourth round a year ago.
"I played my best match against you," an emotional Nadal told Soderling during the trophy ceremony. "If not, it's going to be impossible to beat you."
Seeded No. 2, Nadal won seven consecutive games midway through the match and held every serve, saving all eight break points he faced. He became the second man to win the French Open at least five times, and next year he'll have a chance to match Bjorn Borg's record of six titles.
"It's really impressive," Soderling told Nadal. "If you continue like this, you will sure have the chance to win many more."
With the victory, Nadal will also reclaim the No. 1 ranking today, supplanting Roger Federer.
Soderling, who has yet to win a major title, finished as the runner-up for the second year in a row. In 2009 he lost in the final to Federer.
"I love this tournament," he said. "I will come back next year, and I hope I'll be third-time lucky then."
When Soderling's final shot landed in the net, Nadal slid onto his back, threw up his fists and rose, shaking from his hair the clay he loves. Soon he was sitting and sobbing into his towel.
"It's the most emotional day in my career," Nadal told the crowd in French during the trophy ceremony.
His bad memories of 2009 included not only the loss to Soderling, but the separation of his parents and knee tendinitis that contributed to a slump.
The weather was mild and mostly cloudy -- a nice day to go running, and Nadal did plenty of it. Playing farther behind the baseline than in their match last year, he skidded across the clay and lunged to dig shots out of the corners, repeatedly extending points until Soderling finally misfired.
The big-swinging Soderling tried to win points quickly and sometimes did, but most of the long rallies went Nadal's way. Before the first set ended, the Swede was panting between points.
To compound Soderling's woes, he had an off day with his serve, his biggest weapon. He totaled only seven aces, the same number as Nadal. For the other six rounds, Soderling had 75 aces, Nadal 12.
For the second time in three years, Nadal won all 21 sets en route to the Roland Garros championship.