The French Open final has shaped up very interesting indeed. What a relief Roger isn't there, since we've seen the Roger/Rafa match-up on clay many times and it is not pretty. (OK, it is pretty, but that's the subject of a different article).
Is a new rivalry being born between Robin and Rafa?
Unlike Roger and Rafa, these are two individuals who don't like each other, no matter what they say in public.
Who can forget their first match-up at Wimbledon, 2006? Across three days, five sets, and with a few acrimonious exchanges, who knew it was a harbinger of things to come?
Watching their body langauge in that match, the famous term 'beatdown' came to mind.
The Urban Dictionary defines 'Beatdown' in part as - to deliver a 'whoopin' to one's rival. Both of them wanted to do that to the other on that ocassion.
1 and 0. That was the score in Rome, 2009, the second time they met, this time on clay, not heretofore Robin's favorite surface. Was Rafa sending a message? (I personally believe that he was).
"What if I don't get any games?" Robin is supposed to have asked his coach, Magnus Norman just prior to their 4th round match-up at Roland Garros ,2009.
Well, that's not how the match unfolded. In fact, in retrospect, if one had designed the perfect player to beatdown Rafa on clay, it would be Soderling, the way he played in the 4th round of Roland Garros, 2009: inside the baseline, taking the high bouncing ball early, taking Rafa's short balls and pounding them, attacking his second serve.
Sooo? Now we come to Roland Garros, 2010. The Final. Robin and Rafa.
Will Rafa be out for revenge? You bet he will. No matter what he says in public. And he won't plan it in advance. But when he's on court with Soderling, the junk-yard dog inside Rafa will be ready to slug it out as long as it takes.
Think Djokovic, Madrid, 4 hours, 2009. Think Verdasco, AO, 5.25 hours. Think 3rd set AO final, 2009, against Roger, down love-40, exhausted, when he refused to be broken. Think Doha, 2009, 1rst round, when the poor slob who broke Rafa didn't earn another point the rest of the match. "I enjoy the competition," says Rafa. You bet he does.
Will Robin be ready? You bet. Does he want yet another runner-up trophy? I don't think so.
But how is this going to play out? Will it be a beatdown? In either direction?
I predict both will be nervous. At their core, both will have respect for each other's game. Rafa gets nervous - as we learned during the Almagro match! And yesterday during the Melzer match (which mimicked Rafa at Wimbledon 2008 against Keifer in the semi-final, getting tight). Anyone who has watched Rafa face competitors against whom he doesn't match up well, knows that he gets negative. Example - anytime he plays David Nalbandian.
I predict after some early nerves, both will bring their A-games. And that will be the fun part of the final. Stellar fire-power.
Both Robin and Rafa are slightly different players than last year. Rafa is changing his game (yet again!) - he's been fiddle-faddling with it through the fall, learning how to shorten points, how to play inside the baseline. And he's changed his strings, to provide more depth of penetration on his forehand, while preserving spin.
Robin has shown the incredible power of his game - he represents the new '21rst century' clay-court player, as some of the professional commentators have noted. But he's also shown that his game can disappear on him when he is pressed.
So to win, Robin must execute perfectly, the way he did last year, with no lapses, and possibly for five continuous sets. Rafa is not going to leave the ball short this year (witness the depth he achieved over the same time last year when he defeated Roger in Madrid, 2010).
If Robin cracks for even a little while, and Rafa gets his teeth into the match, then it will be all over. If Rafa is able to put Robin on the defensive, and get into his head, the way he did in Rome, 2009, and if Robin subsequently has a mental meltdown, then the beatdown will be on.
Both Robin and Rafa can get trapped by the 'bad blood between them' scenario. If either one of them gets into a situation where they are not executing, then the revenge scenario adds fuel to the meltdown. There is an added burden of pressure because of the shared history of public disrespect, that will both be part of the nerves at first, and part of the psychology of the match as it unfolds.
As a tennis fan, I can hope that Robin keeps it together, even if he's not able to execute like he did in 2009, and we get five sets of brilliant shot-making. I won't be surprised if it gets 'ugly' in the Brad Gilbert sense - namely both players struggling with nerves, with gamesmanship, and with execution in a way that impairs their mental game.
In 2008, when Rafa was supposedly at his best, Djokovic was the second or third best on clay (like he was in 2009), and Rafa spoke nervously of looming matches with his rival for the #2 spot. But when it came to match time, it wasn't even close.
I predict that this match will show that 2009 was an anomaly for Rafa, and also that he's developing a new and improved game that will help him stay at the top for a long time. That, in spite of the coming dominance of these tall guys like Sodelering, Cilic, and Del Potro (come back soon, Juan!) Rafa still has the mental strength in a best of five competition to turn the match, if he is executing anywhere close to his A-game.
Rafa noted after the Rome match with Soderling that it was a much tougher match than the scoreline showed. Some points were unbelievably tough. I predict the same for Sunday.
Rafa in three.
But it won't be the end of their rivalry.