Tennis: Nadal vs Soderling rematch in French Open final
By HOWARD FENDRICH
AP Tennis Writer
PARIS — On the way to each of his four French Open championships, Rafael Nadal needed to beat Roger Federer — and did.
In 2005, it was in the semifinals.
In 2006, 2007 and 2008, it was in the final.
There was no Nadal-Federer encounter at Roland Garros last year, because Nadal's 31-match winning streak in his favorite tournament ended with a stunning fourth-round loss to Robin Soderling.
And Nadal-Federer did not appear on the schedule at this year's French Open, either, because Federer's title reign ended with a quarterfinal loss to — yes, that's right — Soderling. So instead, if Nadal is going to join Bjorn Borg as the only men to hoist the clay-court Grand Slam tournament's trophy at least five times, it will have to be after a victory over Soderling in Sunday's final.
"Obviously playing Roger Federer was something special, because we played many finals together. Well, that made me feel something special," said Nadal, who found Federer across the net in all but one of his previous eight career major finals. "But this time, this year, we can feel it's going to be slightly different."
If not for one particular match in the past between Nadal and Soderling, the No. 2-seeded Spaniard would be considered an overwhelming favorite against the No. 5-seeded Swede.
Consider: Nadal owns six Grand Slam titles; Soderling none.
Nadal is 202-16 over his career on clay, a .927 winning percentage; Soderling is 67-45, a .598 winning percentage.
Nadal is 37-1 in the French Open; Soderling is 15-6 — and was only 3-5 before 2009.
Ah, but Soderling's surprising trip to his first runner-up finish at a major a year ago included that monumental fourth-round victory, accounting for the one blemish on Nadal's otherwise perfect Roland Garros record.
That one result changes the whole complexion of Sunday's meeting, whether Nadal is willing to say so or not.
Soderling, for one, is willing.
"It's always good to have beaten a player before," Soderling said. "I know that I can beat him. I showed it."
Nadal, who has won all 21 matches he's played on clay in 2010 and all 18 sets he's played in this tournament, has been asked more than once about the prospect of a rematch against Soderling, and he steadfastly refuses to acknowledge any thoughts about gaining "revenge."
"I will be as happy or as disappointed if I lose to Robin or to any other player," said Nadal, who will replace Federer at No. 1 in the rankings with a victory Sunday. "I don't think this is going to change the way I'll approach the match."
Toni Nadal, Rafael's uncle and coach, offered that same point of view.
What both Nadals also did was talk up Soderling's chances. The Nadals have made a habit of making each upcoming opponent, particularly in a match of significance, sound as if he's the greatest tennis player the game ever has known.
When that foe has been Federer, as it so often has, everyone tended to shrug. But the same sort of talk is coming forth about Soderling this time.
Asked what about Soderling's game bothers his nephew, Toni Nadal responded with a snicker: "Every time (Soderling) hits the ball, (Nadal) doesn't like it. He hits the ball very hard. I'd prefer players who hit the ball a little bit softer than Soderling. It will be very hard. Rafael will have to try and hit very hard and play very well if he wants to win."
The younger Nadal's take on Soderling: "Very, very dangerous player, no? He's one of the best of the world. And, yeah, sure is going to be a really difficult match."
Still, the Nadals also have made clear that in 2009, Soderling did not face the same player who will be on the court Sunday. Last year, Nadal was dealing with painful tendinitis in both knees, a problem that restricted his normally perpetual motion against Soderling and later forced him to withdraw from Wimbledon, where he would have been the defending champion.
Nadal also was unhappy away from tennis, because of his parents' separation.
Soderling isn't interested in discussing how healthy Nadal might have been back then.
"I was very happy with the win and my run here last year. I still am," Soderling said after pulling out a five-set semifinal victory Friday against No. 15 Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic. "It doesn't matter who I played or who I beat — or if he was injured or not."
What does seem certain is the weather will play a role Sunday: The forecast calls for rain, and matches on clay can be played despite a drizzle, which presumably would favor Soderling. That's because the balls would become heavier, limiting the effect of the massive amounts of spin Nadal usually puts on his shots, and a damp surface would negate his advantage when it comes to court coverage.
Soderling's victory over Federer on Tuesday was played through showers, and Federer noted that Soderling's flat, booming serves and forehands cut through such conditions.
Both Nadal and Soderling played down the significance of meteorological matters.
Said Nadal: "We're talking about a final here in Roland Garros. I'm not going to start wondering, 'My goodness, what's the weather going to be like? Are we going to have wind or sun?' Whether it's a sunny day or a rainy day, I will play my best tennis."
But Nadal hasn't hidden his dislike for cool, wet conditions. After his first-round victory last week, Nadal was asked in what sort of weather he prefers to play.
"The sun. I love the sun," he said. "The sun is like happiness."