December 26, 2010
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. So why not flatter oneself?
Rafael Nadal channeled his 2008 peak form in the French Open final Sunay. He absolutely dismantled and disheartened his surprise vanquisher from a year ago, Robin Soderling, rendering impotent the powerful groundstrokes of the tall Swede and triumphing 6-4, 6-2, 6-4. It was the fifth French championship for the proud Spaniard, leaving him just one off the mark of Soderling's countryman, Bjorn Borg.
Though Nadal, always a good sport, would deny that revenge was on his mind, it must have felt sweet to put aside his 2009 troubles and reassert himself as both King of Clay and the No. 1 player in the world. Both are monikers that many believe are attached to their rightful owner again.
Soderling was attempting to pull off that rarest of tennis exactas, taking out Roger Federer and Nadal in the same event. Juan Martin del Potro accomplished that at the U.S. Open last year, and after Soderling had utterly overpowered Federer in the quarters, many had thought Nadal would have difficulty in the final.
But Nadal would not be party to any repeat performance. He never let Soderling attain the comfort level he had enjoyed in his two previous meetings with Nadal.
The turning point of the tussle, which was of very high quality to start, came at the beginning of the second set. Serving at 0-1 and a break point down and displaying his singular brand of aggressive defense - that is, retrieving balls that seem completely out of reach and then sending them back with uncanny accuracy and placement - Nadal fought off four break points, demoralizing Soderling. It brought immediately to mind the futility Federer must have felt at their epic Wimbledon meeting in 2008, when all those break points were left cruelly dangling right in front of him, only to have them vanish.
This truly was the end of the match for Soderling. He never recovered, and he appeared dispirited for the rest of the afternoon. But having an opponent look helpless and forlorn and wondering what else to do is familiar territory for Nadal.
The increase in unforced errors from Soderling was not necessarily due to a drop in play. It's just that Nadal robs all players of that extra moment - not by outhitting them but by exhausting them, especially on the red dirt. This forces opponents to go for just that extra little bit of power or to aim for the lines too often.
It was evident that Soderling was adamant about sticking to what had worked against Nadal in their last two meetings - going for broke earlier in rallies and hitting through Nadal. It just didn't work Sunday.
Nadal implemented a varied strategy, utilizing both his old and new weapons. For instance, Nadal has said and demonstrated the last few months that he's willing to move into the court more to shorten points (this is also an attempt to lengthen the career of the oft-injured Nadal).
But for the first set and a half, he was content to stand 10 feet behind the baseline, like he did three or four years ago, in an effort to extend the rallies. Soderling didn't want that. And then when Nadal started to seize control of the final, he began to step into returns more and used the backhand slice to frustrate Soderling and force more errors.
One of Nadal's most underrated attributes is his tactical sensibility. It was on full display Sunday.
Finally, Nadal served brilliantly, placing a stunning 77 percent of first serves in play. Though Nadal usually has a high percentage and doesn't own a power serve like Soderling, this number was still striking as he altered the pace and placement of his deliveries, often leaving a tired Soderling flat-footed. (Perhaps Soderling's long matches against Federer and Tomas Berdych in the previous two rounds took a greater toll than most thought.)
Unable to disrupt Nadal's rhythm on his returns, Soderling was forced to go for too much during rallies, producing the
greater number of mistakes.
For Soderling, reaching the final again was a big deal. Many had thought last year was a mirage and that the talented but erratic Soderling would be unable to replicate his strong run. But he put all doubts to rest with his thrashing of Federer and his inspiring come-from-behind victory over Berdych in the semis. His mediocre footwork will make playing well on the slick grass at Wimbledon a chore, but I suspect Soderling will be a threat to inflict damage at the U.S. Open.
What then of Wimbledon, which starts in two weeks? Well. nothing has changed. It'll still likely come down to Rafa and Roger again.
Nadal was heartbroken about missing the most important event in tennis a year ago due to injury. The French Open is the tournament he owns, but Wimbledon is the tournament he worships. And now with his confidence and physical state in superb shape, I wouldn't bet against Nadal on any surface.