Order In The Court
June 6, 2010 -- Robin Soderling looked skyward, after going down two breaks of serve in the second set. You had to think he wished for a downpour. Play would be suspended. He would go to the locker room, talk with his coach Magnus Norman, and possibly grab onto something that would change his performance and the momentum. It didn't rain and the momentum only built in favor of the eventual winner: Champion Rafael Nadal.
The Coupe de Mousquetaires was once again rewarded to the undisputed King of Clay on Stade Roland Garros, home court to this grateful Spaniard.
"After this tournament last year was a difficult year, and I worked a lot to be here," Nadal commented. "Today I was ready to play. I was ready to play with calm and to try my best and to enjoy the match. I did, and was a very special day."
It is his fifth major title in Paris out of six trips to the final. Nadal now has 7 majors, equaling that of Mats Wilander and John McEnroe in the Open Era.
The cherry on top of Rafa's cake will be his resumption as the number one player in the world on the ATP Southwest Airlines rankings, come Monday morning. But for Nadal, the trophy from The French Open remains more important than the number one ranking. In that sense, he is just like Roger Federer, who wants to win Wimbledon more than anything.
With the grass court season about to begin tomorrow in England -- Rafael Nadal additionally becomes the favorite to win The Championships Wimbledon, which he won once in 2008.
"I think I'll be top seed in Wimbledon," Nadal began. "But please let me enjoy this day before I start talking about Wimbledon."
His fifth victory today in Paris was not an apparition. He didn't drop one set during the two weeks. He also won all three of the ATP Master Series tournaments that led up to The French Open -- Monte Carlo, Rome, and Madrid. Nadal is the first to accomplish this string of wins.
These records and rewards add up to a huge belated birthday present for Rafael. He turned 24 on June 3.
If Swede Robin Soderling had won the title, Swede Bjorn Borg would have received an even bigger birthday gift. He turned 54 today. Borg holds six titles from Roland Garros, the most of any player before or after the Open Era. The trophy presentation would have held tremendous meaning for their country.
But Rafa came out with nothing in mind but to win. According to Mats Wilander, broadcasting for Eurosport UK, Nadal's improved tennis made the difference.
"I call him the new Nadal," Wilander said several times during his reporting. "He has learned to hit deeper and flatter balls, end the point sooner, and serve better."
Coming into the final, Robin Soderling had accumulated 76 aces with a top speed recorded at 142 mph, second only to American Taylor Dent's top speed of 149 mph. In today's match, Nadal matched the big Swede ace-for-ace hitting seven.
"I didn't serve well. It was tough today," Soderling said.
Nadal's winning percentage on first serves was clearly superior to Soderling's: 74% to 65%. However, the two had excellent winning percentages on second serves: 65% to 61% for Soderling.
The most telling statistic, though, was Soderling's total break point conversions. He was zero for eight.
"Every week we have the statistics, and I am number one on break points saved for the year. So [I am a] specialists," Nadal said. His comment brought laughter to the press corps on hand.
Because Soderling was never rewarded for any break point attempts, it surely had to add to the task at hand both mentally and physically. He earned the chances, once with triple break point in one game during set two, but never could convert. Even his biggest, hardest hit, flattest forehands came back. Nadal retrieved them and then complicated the point with his own depth and spin.
"I think everybody knows what to expect when you play against him," Soderling said. "That's why he's so good, because he's moving so well and gets everything back. He's a great defensive player, but also has a great offensive game, as well. He can really change defense to offense really quick."
As the match progressed and Nadal's dominance continued to prevail, Soderling was forced to go for more and more, which is the same pressure the Spaniard applies to all his opponents. It's a given if you face Nadal -- go for your shots and your game, if not you'll come end up with nothing anyway. Soderling certainly has the type of game that can beat Nadal, which he proved last year at Roland Garros.
"You don't want to hit too many shot out there," Wilander recommended on air, speaking about Soderling's best tactics. "You have to go for winners."
Although the match was won in straight sets -- 64 62 64 -- the possibility of defeating Rafael Nadal on clay, or any court surface, does exist. Scores flip on a dime. Points separate match results and the players ranked in the top 100. The weather, surface qualities, the sun's direction, moods, physical health, ability to concentrate without interference from friend and family problems all contribute to a day on the courts of The French Open.
All that said, Nadal's victory today becomes even more spectacular and noteworthy. He has emerged from his difficult year. His body is sound, as is his mind calm. He has changed some things in his game, which will make him more of a threat during the summer -- beginning tomorrow at Queen's when he'll start practicing on grass.
Roger Federer is as much the King of Grass as Nadal is The King of Clay. Nadal's ability to change tactics and strategies, and run as well as he ever has will improve his changes for victory on the slippery green stuff.
As many ways these two great players are different, they are similar, too, in their love of the game and the emotions evoked when a grand goal has been reached. Nadal cried on the sideline, immediately following his victory. He had a towel to his face, but his shoulders revealed that he, too, like Roger Federer could be overwhelmed by an occasion such as the one today in Paris.