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Steve Flink: Nadal at his very best

6/6/2010 3:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

PARIS--- I have always relished watching a great tennis champion performing at the peak of his powers, taking hold of a major final from the outset until the end, soaring to a level of sustained excellence that is unanswerable even by a worthy opponent. When a player of the upper crust steps forward in this fashion and utterly controls the proceedings, it is time to sit back and celebrate their talent, to fully appreciate the skills they have brought to their craft, to observe what a towering competitor does when they know only their craftiest stuff will suffice. And so it was at Roland Garros today as the unassailable Rafael Nadal went to work in perhaps his favorite office in the world, and came away with a fifth French Open crown in the process.

Nadal was immaculate in every facet of his game as he dismantled No. 5 seed Robin Soderling 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 for his seventh Grand Slam singles championship, sweeping to victory and claiming his fourth consecutive clay court title in a stellar season, exacting revenge on the man who had beaten him in a startling four set upset on the same court in the round of 16 a year ago. Make no mistake about it: Nadal did not take his 2009 loss to Soderling in a deeply personal manner, but he does not take kindly to defeat no matter who is responsible for it. Moreover, Nadal surely respected Soderling’s impressive run to a second French Open final in a row. The 25-year-old Swede had recorded some terrific victories this time around, overcoming the No. 29 seed from Spain Albert Montanes, casting aside No. 10 seed Marin Cilic in straight sets, engineering the upset of the tournament by removing Roger Federer in the quarterfinals, and then rebounding from a two sets to one deficit in overcoming an inspired Tomas Berdych in a five set semifinal.

Nadal knew he had to be at, or at least near, the top of his game against Soderling, who followed up on his Roland Garros triumph over the Spaniard with another win at the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London. Despite his much improved form in halting the left-handed Austrian Jurgen Melzer in a straight set semifinal, Nadal had good reason to be concerned about his appointment with Soderling. The 6’4” Swede was understandably intimidated when he took on Roger Federer in the championship match a year ago in Paris, but he approached his second Grand Slam tournament final in a different frame of mind, exuding confidence in himself and his chances.

The 24-year-old Spaniard knew he needed to impose himself in the early stages of the contest, and that wasn’t easy for him to do. Nadal was serving at 1-2, 30-40 in the opening set when he faced his first break point. He missed his first serve but stood his ground admirably after spinning in his second delivery. Nadal rolled a heavy topspin forehand crosscourt, and Soderling tried to take the high ball early. He drove his two-hander long down the line, and an obstinate Nadal went on to hold for 2-2. Given that reprieve, Nadal was not about to look back. He broke Soderling in the following game, making certain to raise the trajectory of his returns to keep them inordinately deep and high, forcing Soderling to play one difficult shoulder high ball after another. Soderling fended off one break point, but Nadal got him on the second. Soderling approached behind a forehand and Nadal whipped his backhand passing shot crosscourt. Soderling might have had a play, but he let the ball go and Nadal’s shot landed cleanly in the corner for a winner.

Nadal surged to 4-2, and nearly broke again. Soderling had a 40-0 lead in the seventh game but Nadal was of the mindset that every point was match point. Twice he made it to break point, and the Spaniard missed one of those chances by the narrowest of margins when he went for a forehand down the line winner and sent it wide. Soderling held on, and then had an opening himself. With Nadal serving at 4-3, 30-30, he double faulted flagrantly long, but he saved that break point with the stupendous defense he would exhibit all match long. Soderling earned a second break point, but Nadal erased that one in a hurry with a well placed sliced serve wide, which the Swede could not handle on the backhand return. Nadal held for 5-3, and then had Soderling down 0-40, triple set point in the ninth game.

Here Soderling enjoyed his proudest moment of the afternoon. An ace, a thundering service winner and a big serve that set up an inside-out forehand winner allowed Soderling back to deuce. He powered on from there to force Nadal to serve out the set. In that critical tenth game, Nadal moved swiftly to 30-0 but Soderling fought tenaciously to make it 30-30, rifling away a forehand winner after Nadal had typically scraped back ball after ball with steadfast defense. At 30-30, Nadal swung his serve down the T with slice, provoking Soderling into a backhand return error. Now at set point, Nadal was masterful once more in countering Soderling’s power, taking Soderling’s deep return, slicing it back gamely off the backhand, and luring Soderling into an inside-out forehand mistake. Nadal had the set, and both players knew he had control of the match.

Soderling searched quickly for a remedy. With the skies growing darker by the moment, Soderling held in the opening game of the second set, and then had four break points in the second game. Soderling desperately needed to build a quick lead to strip Nadal of his momentum, but the Spaniard refused to buckle. At 15-40, Nadal served an ace out wide in the deuce court. He reached deuce by hanging in a rally he had every right to lose. Soderling was being asked to hit four winners to win every single point, and he finally erred off the backhand, driving his two-hander long. On the third break point, Nadal shifted brilliantly from defense to offense in the blink of an eye, and came forward to make a very tough forehand drop volley winner off a low passing shot from the Swede, who then missed a forehand return on his last break point in that game. Nadal stubbornly held on for 1-1.

Although a composed Soderling held at love to go ahead 2-1 in the second set--- ending that game with a well concealed backhand drop shot winner down the line--- Nadal was not dismayed. Not in the least. He held at love for 2-2, then broke Soderling at love in the following game despite the fact that Soderling got three of four first serves into play. Nadal was heading inexorably toward victory now. He held at 15 for 4-2. On the second point of that memorable game, Nadal made one of his most spectacular plays of the day, chasing down an impeccable forehand drop volley from Soderling and angling a forehand pass acutely crosscourt for a dazzling winner which delighted the fans. Soderling saved a break point at 2-4, 30-40 but Nadal took the next point with a stunning backhand return deep crosscourt into the corner, leaving Soderling helpless to respond. With yet another deep return, Nadal set up an aggressive forehand crosscourt, and Soderling netted a two-hander under considerable duress.

Up a set and two breaks with a 5-2 second set lead, Nadal held commandingly at 15, serving an ace to start that game, then driving a forehand winner down the line to make it 30-0. He closed out that game and set easily, but refused to take his foot off the accelerator. Soderling had a game point in the first game of the third set, but Nadal went to his trademark brand of heavy topspin to coax an error from Soderling off the forehand. Realizing that Nadal was giving nothing away, Soderling missed two more forehands to get broken, but his heart was still in the battle. Soderling had Nadal down break point in the second game, but the Spaniard was unrelenting. He pulled Soderling wide to the backhand in the Ad court with another surgically sliced serve, and the Swede missed the return. Nadal held on for 2-0 with an ace.

Thereafter, the only question was whether or not Nadal’s nerve would hold up. He had conceded after his semifinal with Melzer that he had been uptight at the end after leading two sets to love and building a 5-3, 0-30 lead in the third with the Austrian serving to save the match. He had been pushed into a long tie-break before finishing off that contest, but against Soderling Nadal was totally at ease and utterly in control of emotions at the end. In his last four service games, Nadal dropped only four points. Although Soderling kept competing honorably--- saving a break point with a forehand winner at 2-4 in the third set--- Nadal was unflappable. Serving for the match at 5-4, he held at love, keeping Soderling at bay, closing out the account in style.

Nadal’s straight set triumph over a formidable rival was one of the clay court masterpieces of his career, even more impressive to me than his 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 whitewash of Federer in the 2008 final. On that occasion, Federer faded away in the third set as he lost his third straight Roland Garros final to his premier rival, and the Swiss played a lackluster match. Soderling pushed Nadal much harder but was unrewarded for his efforts. Nadal played his most immaculate match ever in a final at Roland Garros, making only 16 unforced errors across three concentrated sets, fighting off all eight break points he faced and never losing his serve, handling the biggest points with cool poise and precision. Given the importance of the match, I would rate this performance as Nadal’s best ever on the Roland Garros clay.

Never before has he mixed offense with defense so adroitly. His shot selection was outstanding. His return of serve took away one of Soderling’s primary weapons. So Nadal has now succeeded in seven of nine finals at the Grand Slam events, losing only to Federer in two Wimbledon title round encounters, winning all of the rest he has contested. That includes a 5-0 record in French Open finals. Bjorn Borg still holds the men’s record with six championship runs at Roland Garros, but Nadal is only 24, and the feeling grows that he will eventually break the Borg record. The Spaniard should have at least three and possibly four more opportunities in his prime to surpass the Swede. I believe he will do it; he is now indisputably the greatest clay court player in the history of the men’s game.

Moreover, Nadal is back at No. 1 in the world, which seems like poetic justice to me. The only reason he lost his No. 1 status a year ago was because he got beaten by Soderling on a day when his knees were surely bothering him. On top of that, he was distraught about the breakup of his parent’s marriage. Nadal was not able to defend his Wimbledon crown, and Federer came away with both the Roland Garros and Wimbledon trophies. Nadal had won five tournaments leading up to the French Open in 2009, and would surely have maintained his residence at No. 1 had he not been put out of circulation by injuries. Unless Nadal gets injured again, there is an excellent chance that he will finish 2010 as the No. 1 ranked player in the world. He had not won a tournament since Rome in 2009 when he came to Monte Carlo this spring; now he has captured four big clay court titles in a row, and 22 consecutive matches. In that remarkable span, Nadal dropped only two sets. At Roland Garros, no one took a set off him, a feat he had accomplished once before (in 2008). That is an astounding feat.

It was a joy to watch him as he moved into “the zone” today. Nadal did it all. He served purposefully, wrong-footed Soderling over and over again with the deception of his inside-out and crosscourt forehands, drove the backhand with more depth and pace than he has for a long while, and covered the court as only he can. In fact, he moved better in this match than he has in a very long time, and his footwork was one of the keys to his triumph. Nadal was in his element, scraping balls back and retrieving better than ever before, taking the initiative whenever possible, shaping his own destiny with his uncanny strategic acumen. This was Rafael Nadal at the height of his powers, and I’m glad I was there in person to witness one of his finest displays.

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