Rafael Nadal: The Return Of The King

Deepan JoshiContributor IJune 7, 2010

PARIS - JUNE 06:  Rafael Nadal of Spain plays a backhand during the men's singles final match between Rafael Nadal of Spain and Robin Soderling of Sweden on day fifteen of the French Open at Roland Garros on June 6, 2010 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Julian Finney/Getty Images

Rafael Nadal had probably spent one long year thinking about this.

Since the age of 19, when he first lifted the French Open title, he had been unbeaten on Paris clay and last year in the fourth round he suffered his first loss to the big serving Swede, Robin Soderling.

As he tucked his face inside a towel and sobbed for a while, one could get a feeling of what this victory meant for him. This win was a year in coming and on the overcast first Sunday of June 2010 Nadal had his revenge.

Playing some breathtaking clay-court tennis, he broke the spirit of Soderling and never allowed the Swede to get into the game. Whenever Soderling had an opportunity, and he had plenty, Nadal lived up to the reputation of being the best defender in the game by moving brilliantly on the clay court to retrieve balls that stunned Soderling.

The BBC reported an oft-repeated adage from recent times: No one beats a fully fit Nadal, especially on clay. Rafael Nadal showed why the adage holds true in his straight sets win at Roland Garros.

Nadal came to Paris after a perfect clay-court season where he won all three ATP World Tour Masters 1000 clay-court events at Monte-Carlo, Rome, and Madrid leading up to Roland Garros. He is the only one to have ever achieved the feat. He won in straight sets in Monte-Carlo, Rome and Madrid defeating Fernando Verdasco, David Ferrer and Roger Federer respectively.  

Nadal concluded the clay season with 22 consecutive victories, winning 51 of 53 sets—including all 21 sets at Roland Garros. Nadal also had a clean run in 2008—a feat that only two other men achieved here, Borg (twice) and Ilie Nastase.

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Former tennis player Greg Rusdeski wrote for the Mirror in UK: “Rafa Nadal played like Superman to win his fifth French Open title yesterday.

And the Spaniard will now arrive in London flying high at the top of the world rankings to set up a great grass-court season starting at the AEGON Championships today. Nadal’s straight-sets victory over Robin Soderling was the best I have ever seen him play. He was simply sensational. The 24-year-old was like a human wall in defence and deadly in attack.

Nadal was superb when he won the French Open, then Queen’s and Wimbledon in 2008. But now I think the new world No. 1 is even better.

His serve is stronger, his backhand has improved and he is fresher now he is more selective over his schedule. No man has ever won all three clay-court Masters and the French Open in the same year and he will start at Queen’s Club on Wednesday full of confidence. Roger Federer will have to wait a little longer to break Pete Sampras’ record of 286 weeks at world No. 1.”

Soderling started the match well by serving two good games initially and a glaring error of judgment in the business end of the set sealed the first set 6-4 in Nadal’s favour. It was in the second set that Nadal showed what he is capable of when he defended an early game from being 0-40 down to draw level at 1-1. Nadal was at his quickest in the second set, perhaps realising that these were the moments where the trophy would be won. He was running like a hare and returning balls that only he can and it forced the Swede to go extra hard for his strokes. The unforced errors kept mounting for Soderling and he even hit some balls long when Nadal was on one side of the court.

The frustration started showing on Soderling as Nadal also illustrated the perfect way to attack. Nadal would patiently play the rally; defend some good groundstrokes from Soderling and then attack whenever an opportunity came. When the Spaniard attacked it was a winner and he committed very few errors and got a very high percentage of first serves in. Soderling’s first serve percentage crumbled in the face of sustained defence and magical attack by Nadal. In the second set Soderling got just 41 per cent of his first serves in while Nadal got 81 per cent of them in.    

Soderling second serve speed was near about the first serve speed of Nadal and the overall (including serve) winners were 32 for Soderling compared to 28 for Nadal. However, Nadal was much better in receiving points won—out of 91 serves of the Swede Nadal won 36 points and out of 90 serves of Nadal Soderling won 26 points.

The break point conversions were zero out of eight for the Swede and four out of 12 for Nadal. Total points won were 81 for Soderling and 100 for Nadal. The most important statistic in the match was the number of unforced errors that the two players made. Nadal made just 16 unforced errors compared to 45 by Soderling.

Nadal has over the years earned respect by not only winning on his favourite surface at the French Open but by gradually, through hard work and determination, improving and winning at the Wimbledon and the Australian Open in 2008 and 2009 respectively. Nadal broke the stalemate going on for a few years where he would win in Paris and then Federer would take over in London and New York.    

He clearly holds an edge over other players in the circuit when it comes to pressure matches and against Roger Federer he has a superb 14-7 win loss ratio overall. What is the nature of the edge that Nadal holds over Federer, and even over others, and why is it that only Nadal seems to have that edge? The answer was best given in one of the comments to a previous post of mine. Nadal lives for the pressure. And when the game goes to the fifth set, as it did in Wimbledon and in Melbourne against Federer and also in Rome in 2006, it was Nadal’s never die spirit and his better absorption of pressure that saw him come out on top. Nadal thrives precisely in the situations that other players dread and his semi-final epic against Fernando Verdasco in Melbourne 2009 is another superb example of it.

Three-times French Open champion Mats Wilander was impressed. “He’s a much, much more complete player than he used to be,” Wilander said. “He’s playing faster, hitting the ball with lower trajectory and deeper, too. He’s serving better, too, moving the ball around.”

Greg Garber of ESPN wrote: “Nadal meandered through the field here, never really getting stressed until he was forced into two tiebreakers by Nicolas Almagro in the quarterfinals. Perhaps inspired by the magnitude of the moment, Nadal played his best match of the fortnight.

In the second set, it was like watching a collection of Nadal’s greatest hits: the heavy, hooked forehand down the line that starts over the doubles alley and breaks sharply down and over for a winner, the artfully carved drop shot that has so much rotation it barely bounces, the cross-court backhand from well behind the baseline that barely clears the net and exits the court at an impossibly acute angle.

The match was decided in a few quietly desperate points of the second set. Serving at 0-1, Nadal saved four break points and then crushed Soderling with some searing stuff. In the fifth game, Soderling hit what looked like a winning forehand, but Nadal not only ran it down but also flicked a backhand stab that travelled cross-court past a baffled Soderling.”

After a year of heartbreak, injury, and the doubts that creep in this was Nadal’s big moment under the Sun and he needed a private minute or two at the Court Philippe Chatrier so he buried his head in the towel and cried. He knew he would have all the time in the world to smile and be joyous in just a moment.

The dust of the clay court has now settled and its worthy champion is now World No. 1 and ready to move on to grass. The way he played here means that he would be a serious contender on any surface. Wimbledon can’t come soon enough.