Coming Full Circle
June 4, 2010 -- Rafael Nadal and Robin Soderling will play on Sunday for The French Open Championship title. Go figure.
A year ago Soderling raised eyebrows and his profile when he handed King Nadal his first, and only, loss at Roland Garros since 2005. The Swede had utterly ruined Rafa's record. It stood at 36-1, the 'one' an undesirable eyesore. Nadal's love for this major, his romance with the terre battue, and his need for ritualistic perfection shattered.
It took Nadal a year to get beyond his disappointment, the problems with his knees, and the sorrow over for his parents' divorce -- all of which rose to the surface soon afterward. Rough-and-tumble Rafa, the unyielding competitor who dove and slid for every ball, revealed his emotions only privately with family and friends.
His fans and the tennis world sympathized with his life after defeat, imagining the emotional and physical precipice at which the Spaniard stood. As much as the world loves Roger Federer -- and they do love him everywhere he goes -- Rafael Nadal is also loved.
The downward trend ceased in Rome, this spring, when he won his first title since his loss to Soderling. He grabbed that gusto and road into Madrid, skipping Barcelona in order to preserve his body, and won that title, too.
He hasn't slowed a step since. His record on clay is 24-0, having lost only two sets in two tournaments, before stepping foot on Roland Garros. Ernests Gulbis won one in Rome. Nicolas Almagro was the other culprit to smudge the record books. He won one in Madrid. But he didn't win anything from Nadal in their quarterfinal match in Paris this week.
No one has taken a set from Rafa. No one has come close. There have been tiebreaks -- two against Almagro and one today in the semifinals against Jurgen Melzer. When break points pinched at Nadal he fought like a Samurai. His face radiated 'no you won't.' It was more than your everyday stare-down. His intensity paralleled Gandalf The Grey's, as he screamed, to the Flame of Udun, "You shall not pass!" in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
The odds are stacked against Robin Soderling winning on Sunday. It is quite obvious to anyone and everyone. However, the re-match will draw millions of viewers. Stade Roland Garros will be stuffed with well-dressed French men and women and children, and others who will have traveled from around the world.
They will come to see revenge, an outlying chance of an upset, and the honor of witnessing a rivalry of fine tennis players who have no love lost between them, which doesn't only stem from The French Open match.
These two played one of the longest matches in the history of Wimbledon in 2007. Rain choked off play during the fortnight, forcing their match to run from Saturday through Wednesday -- five days of on-and-off court antics. Nadal had won the first two sets and thought he'd won the third, and the match, when rain came tumbling down. Soderling went on to take the next two sets. At the first point of the fifth Soderling, annoyed with the length of time Nadal took to serve, mocked the Spaniard's penchant for picking at the seat of his pants. Soderling grabbed his shorts and tugged them a couple times, sending a clear message seventy-six feet to the other baseline. Nadal stood bouncing the ball and glaring at his opponent.
When asked about Soderling's conduct in his press conference, Nadal said, "In the end, we will see what's happening... in the end of the life, no?"
Tomas Berdych almost made a mess of the match most people have anticipated and yearn to see. After losing the third set to Berdych -- putting him down two sets to one -- the Swede crunched his red racquet on the red clay. His cool demeanor boiled. Berdych was one set away from victory.
"He was playing really well," Soderling began. "I had a few break points. But he came up with some really good serves on the important moments. I was telling myself I can still win this."
He could still win La Coupe des Mousquetaires, too. His intensity matches Nadal's. His big-hitting game is potentially harmful to Nadal. Soderling is a big man with a big serve and big groundstrokes, his down the line backhand a favorite.
Mats Wilander, in his recent interview on Tennis Server, said that both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal would have to watch out for big guys.
"Nadal would have to have a really bad draw and bad luck not to make it to the final," Wilander began. "He, too, will have to watch out for big guys such as Robin Soderling.
If the irony isn't clear by now, here's another otherworldly correlation between the Swede Wilander and the Swede Soderling. Robin is the first player to defeat two defending champions in consecutive years at Roland Garros since Wilander defeated Yannick Noah, in 1984, and Ivan Lendl in 1985.
Weather conditions are part of Sunday's match, too. Soderling would be aided by cooler, grayer and damper weather. The way it was when he beat Federer. The ball would sit up in his wheelhouse and he could then throttle it. He would have better footing on damper clay, but that would be the same for the speedy Nodal, who will figure out how to survive no matter the weather.
Forecasts for Paris call for cloudy skies with temperatures around 77 degrees. But, we all know that predictions can go awry.