Fire and ice.
Smoldering passion and steel-hard determination.
The heat of the Mediterranean and the temperate coolness of northern latitudes.
The bookies’ favorite versus the dark horse.
Rafael Nadal and Robin Soderling, Spain and Sweden.
The final of the 2010 French Open had a wonderful symmetry to it. Last year’s finalist was playing the four-time champion. If Soderling won, it would be his first Major and he would break into the top five for the first time. If Nadal won—well the world was his oyster.
He aimed to become the only man to win the “Clay Slam” and, even more sweet, to could take back the No. 1 ranking from Roger Federer.
He could claim the French Open final for the fifth time, and for the second time without losing a set. It would mark a 22-0 perfect record for the clay season, and a faster accumulation of 203 career wins on clay than any other man.
Yet Nadal turned 24 just days ago.
But what of the man who, this time last year, battered the then reigning champion Nadal into submission in the fourth round, and did the same to this year’s reigning champion, Federer? What of the big, sardonic Soderling who also beat Nadal when they last met, in London at the World Tour Finals?
Many thought Soderling had it in his power to repeat his feat of last year, and bully Nadal off the court much as he done to Federer. He had also shown real strength, both in his tennis and his character, in beating the big, talented Czech, Tomas Berdych, in the semifinals.
And in that humdinger of a match, Soderling had shown something more. His shots did not come as freely nor the points as easily as in earlier rounds. He had to play ugly, and he had to guts it out. What that match showed was that Soderling, in the last year, had developed the mentality of a potential champion.
Some of the credit for this tougher, calmer player who could knuckle down in adversity has been attributed to the firm hand of coach Magnus Norman, from whom Soderling clearly drew resolve at this tournament. His first salute on winning the semi was aimed at his coach, and Norman nodded his approval in return. The new model Soderling, focused and full of self-belief, showed another new trait: he had to fight back tears of joy.
This year, though, Soderling was not just up against a fitter player than the one he beat 2009. He was playing a man who believes that Roland Garros is as much his home as the Majorcan waterfront.
As the two men took to the court, their appearances encapsulated the contrasts. Nadal, clad in lime, Aegean blue, and the color of the clear sky, glowed berry brown, a child of the sun. Soderling was his monochrome counterpart in black and white, his complexion unnaturally pale amid the sun-kissed tennis fraternity.
The conditions, as if to shine on Nadal’s campaign, also turned in the Spaniard’s favor. The sun came out, the temperature rose, and the court’s generous top-dressing dried out. Soderling’s movement may have improved in the last 12 months, but he will never be a match for the flying feet, controlled skidding, and trip-wire turning circle of Nadal on the slippery dirt.
But the game would be won and lost as much on Soderling’s ability to serve as he’d done in the rest of the tournament as on Nadal’s superior movement, and from the off, it was clear he could not.
Soderling topped the tournament for aces, at 82, but he managed just seven against Nadal. More serious, though, his overall first serve percentage was just 56 percent, and Nadal’s a staggering 77 percent. While Soderling blew cold, Nadal blew hot.
Without the bedrock of his lethal one-two—the serve out wide, followed by a missile to the opposite corner—Soderling fought for his own service games and then, as all players do, found it near impossible to break through Nadal’s. The Swede’s chances were few—just eight break points—and he failed to convert any of them.
Serving at 3-5, and 0-40 down in the first set, Soderling did finally seem to relax, and hit both serve and ground strokes with the sort of power that had got him to the final. He almost broke through Nadal’s serve, too, but the Spaniard resisted to take the set, 6-4.
The second set began much as the first, with many closely fought rallies, and Soderling started to find the range on his off-forehand. The crowd, sensing a comeback from the Swede, chanted his name in encouragement, but that only seemed to draw more pace and power from Nadal. Soderling began once more to push his forehand inches long.
That was the signal for Nadal to truly hit a purple patch. His serving improved to 81 percent for the set, he retrieved near-impossible drives, pulled off touch volleys, and generated huge forehands of his own.
The better he played, the more confident he became, the more audacious was his shot-making, and the more overwhelming his presence. He produced just four unforced errors in each of the second and third sets. It was 6-2 in under 40 minutes.
While the third set began as competitively as the other two, Nadal could now smell victory. Soderling, to his enormous credit, stayed positive and aggressive, but a final total of 45 unforced errors confirmed that he was up against an immovable object.
There was, therefore, a certain inevitability when the end came, 6-4 in the final set. There was, indeed, a certain justice about seeing Nadal holding La Coupe des Mousquetaires once again, having beaten the man who had deprived him of his tilt at the title last year.
The contrasting protagonists appeared in sharp contrast at the end as at the beginning: the heat of passion and the calm coolness of pragmatism.
Nadal gave way to emotion in a way never before seen: he sobbed beneath his towel, shoulders heaving, at courtside. Soderling’s ice-blue eyes took in the long moments with the bearing of a man not quite ready to melt away under the glare of the sun.
Then there came a brief convergence as the two men stood in the spotlight to accept their respective spoils. Each spoke briefly, both with smiles, with good grace, and with generosity towards the other.
Soderling, not always a media favorite, won many new fans in Paris both for his courageous and bold tennis and for his self-deprecating words. “Bonjour, hello!” he began. “I love this tournament and love the support you have given me…I will come back next year and I hope it will be third time lucky.” He beamed throughout.
It is never a surprise to hear Nadal generous in his comments, and at Roland Garros he was no different. But he did add a new string to his popularity bow: a few sentences in French. The crowd—were it possible—fell just a little more in love with one of their greatest champions.
Nadal now faces the heady prospect of adding huge points in what may be considered the defence of a Wimbledon title that he was unable to defend last year.
This season’s Nadal, though, is a more complete player than the one who was forced off the Tour just 12 months ago. He attacks as much as he counter-punches, he takes the ball on the rise more often, and approaches the net more effectively. To top it all, his serve is more varied, more penetrating, more swinging than it has ever been.
Nadal has been close to unbeatable on clay for his entire professional life. With the improvements he is now achieving—not to mention the undimmed fire in his belly—he may also be close to unbeatable on every other surface too.
On this first day of Nadal’s new campaign as world No. 1, however, it seems appropriate to highlight one final point of symmetry in his French victory. For the day on which Nadal became only the second man to win five French titles, June 6th, is the birthday of the first man to achieve the same record: that coolest of all icy Swedes, Bjorn Borg.
Nadal now seems destined to match the great Borg’s tally of six: same time, same place, 2011.