With an unbeaten record and a historic three Masters clay titles leading up to Paris, victory seemed a mere formality for Rafael Nadal at the French Open. Still, with Robin Soderling, the only rival to defeat Nadal at that venue as his finals’ opponent, an interesting twist was added to the plot. Irrespective of the challenger, Nadal demonstrated that he is the master on this surface. The Spaniard triumphed 6-4,6-2,6-4 to claim his fifth “Coupe des Mousquetaries” and recapture the number one ranking.
Soderling commenced the first set with a couple of unfettered games. Then, with a forehand down the line error by Nadal had break point. However, Nadal got to deuce when Soderling’s backhand traveled out of play. With Soderling donating two forehand mistakes, Nadal equalized the set at 2 all. Promptly, when Soderling made another forehand error, Nadal had his initial break point. Despite Soderling dismissing one, Nadal obtained a second and capitalized with a backhand crosscourt pass for winner. Quickly, Nadal consolidated to widen his advantage to 4-2. In the next game, Soderling double faulted on game point resulting in deuce and later gave Nadal two additional opportunities to break. Yet, the Swede maintained his composure to pull off the game and remain one break down. When Nadal himself double faulted, Soderling had break point. But, on a forehand miscue by Soderling, Nadal rubbed out that previous error. A second break point came along after Soderling crushed a second serve return and Nadal was unable to deal with the subsequent shot. Yet, with Soderling gifting another error, Nadal won the point. Thereafter, Nadal secured the game and eventually seized the set 6-4.
After Soderling’s uncomplicated game to open the second set, on an errant forehand by Nadal, the Swede had double break point. With an ace and a botched backhand by Soderling, Nadal reached deuce. Soderling manufactured two more opportunities. Nevertheless, each was snuffed out by Nadal to tie the set at 1. Soderling short memory helped as he held at love right after. Nonetheless, Soderling’s next time out, Nadal connected on a couple of winners for triple break point. When the Swede misfired with the forehand up the line, Nadal broke for 3-2. Later, with a glut of mistakes, Soderling handed Nadal a double break lead. The Spaniard easily closed out the set at 6-2.
Unlike last year, for Soderling, the errors far exceeded the winners. Moreover, the serve, a potent part of Soderling’s game was being neutralized by Nadal’s excellent defense. Conversely, as the match progressed, Nadal cleaned up his game. Following an ace for game point, Soderling committed another error for deuce. With two consecutive forehands flubs by Soderling, Nadal bagged the break to begin the third set. By charging to net, Soderling forced Nadal to place a backhand pass out of play for his eight break point. Yet, by netting the backhand return, Soderling was now 0 for 8 on break points. Eventually, Nadal guarded serve for a 2-0 edge. The next couple of service games, Soderling comfortably held. When the Swede double faulted in the seventh game, Nadal had another break point. Still, Soderling dealt with the pressure and maintained serve for 3-4. But, Soderling was given no further looks at a break point by Nadal. As the mistakes flew off Soderling’s racket, Nadal promptly held the rest of the way to take the championship in straight sets.
After the match, Soderling congratulated Nadal saying, “if you play like this, you have a chance to win many more”. Despite being denied the title a second time, Soderling cited that “it is wonderful to be here and I enjoy this event very much”. As his coach Magnus Norman who was in a similar position against Gustavo Kuerten 10 years ago looked on, Soderling terminated his speech by stating that he will be back in 2011 and “hope[s] to be third time lucky”.
Brimming with joy, Nadal thanked the crowd in French for their support and shared that this was the most emotional day of his career. Nadal felt that he “played [his] best match of the tournament”. The Spaniard declared that it’s “a dream to be back after a difficult year and that he was [grateful] to everyone [because] he has felt at home [in Paris] the last six years”. In two weeks at Roland Garros, Nadal did not surrender a set. With the Spaniard having regained his golden touch on clay, the rest of the field may never hoist that trophy for many years.
Ironically, the fifth for Nadal arrived on Bjorn Borg’s 54th birthday. With his 29th clay court title, Nadal has positioned himself alone in fourth place, surpassing Ivan Lendl and Ilie Nastase. Should Nadal repeat in Paris next year, he will tie Borg’s record there. Moreover, with one more clay championship, Nadal will stand with Borg and countryman Manuel Orantes in the third spot.
Although Soderling failed to become the first Swede since Mats Wilander in 1988 to prevail in Paris, he does not go home empty handed. On Monday, Soderling will move up to number six in the rankings.
In multiple manners, Soderling has made a significant impact with his performance the last two years. Firstly, in ousting Roger Federer in the quarterfinals, Soderling put the door ajar for Nadal to return to number one. Secondly, Soderling prevented Federer from equalizing Pete Sampras’ record for most weeks at number one. Thirdly, Soderling halted Federer’s monumental streak of most consecutive appearances in semifinals at the majors at 23, a feat which is likely untouchable. Lastly, Soderling may be known as Nadal’s Adrianno Pannatta. The latter, the 1976 French Open champion, is the only person to defeat Borg at Roland Garros. So, for Soderling, what a way to make one’s mark on tennis history.