PARIS - All Rafael Nadal cares about is winning a fifth French Open championship.
Doesn’t matter how he’s played until now.
Doesn’t matter that he can regain the No. 1 ranking with one more victory.
And, the Spaniard insists, it certainly doesn’t matter to him one bit that in Sunday’s final, he gets a chance to face the only man he’s lost to at Roland Garros, Sweden’s Robin Soderling. The tantalizing prospect of a Nadal-Soderling rematch with a Grand Slam title on the line is something for others to ponder.
“I never believe (in) revenge,” Nadal said after he and Soderling won their semifinals Friday. “I will be as happy or as disappointed if I lose to Robin or to any other player. I don’t think this is going to change the way I’ll approach the match.”
Perhaps that’s true. Still, there’s one key stat that won’t go away: Nadal boasts a 37-1 career record at the French Open, with Soderling responsible for the lone setback, upsetting the four-time champion in the fourth round a year ago en route to a runner-up finish.
“It’s always good to have beaten a player before. I know that I can beat him. I showed it,” said Soderling, who knocked off defending champion Roger Federer in the quarterfinals Tuesday. “But, again, every match is a new match, and every match is different.”
Friday’s two semifinals hardly could have contrasted more.
First came the No. 5-seeded Soderling’s grueling, serve-it-and-slug-it victory over No. 15 Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic, a 6-3, 3-6, 5-7, 6-3, 6-3 test that required 3½ hours. Then came the No. 2-seeded Nadal’s far-less-competitive 6-2, 6-3, 7-6 (6) win over No. 22 Jurgen Melzer of Austria.
With the sun shining, and the temperature climbing above 80 degrees, the 6-foot-4 Soderling and the 6-foot-5 Berdych traded big, quick shots. They have similar games, relying mainly on powerful serves — Berdych pounded 21 aces, Soderling 18 — and forehands that zip through the air.
Both were troubled by double-faults at important moments, including Berdych’s on a break point that put Soderling ahead 4-2. It was only the sixth game of a match that would contain 48, yet Berdych called that the closest thing to a turning point.
That assessment seems a tad odd, given that Berdych came back to win the next two sets, when Soderling’s strokes went awry and he made nearly half his 63 unforced errors.
“Today was really tough to really play my own game because he didn’t give me any time at all,” Soderling said. “The conditions were much quicker, and he was hitting the ball really hard and really flat.”
But Soderling came through. He pounded his right fist on his chest after taking advantage of another double-fault, plus two backhands into the net, by Berdych to lead 4-2 in the fourth set. And in the fifth, with Berdych tiring, Soderling earned a key break point at 3-all with a backhand passing winner.
Soderling swept the last four games, and in the last, he showed he was still fresh, ripping a forehand passing shot down the line while on the run, part of a 33-12 edge in groundstroke winners from the baseline.
When Berdych sailed a backhand wide to close a 15-stroke exchange on match point, Soderling looked on the verge of tears, and he pulled his shirt over his face. Then he sat in his green changeover bench and bowed his head, aware that he’d earned a trip to his second major final.
This is a guy who never had won so much as a third-round match at a Grand Slam tournament until his surprising 2009 showing at Roland Garros, which ended with a straight-set loss to Federer in the final.
“Hopefully,” Soderling said, “I won’t be as nervous as I was last year.”
Nadal would love to forget last year — and not just because of his loss to Soderling. In addition to failing to regain the French Open title, Nadal went through tendinitis in his knees, a problem that limited his movement against Soderling in Paris.
“I was very happy with the win and my run here last year. I still am,” Soderling said. “It doesn’t matter who I played or who I beat — or if he was injured or not.”
Nevertheless, those knees forced Nadal to withdraw from Wimbledon instead of defending his championship there. And then he ceded the No. 1 ranking to Federer, who will give it back if Nadal wins Sunday.
Most bothersome of all was what happened off the court in 2009: Nadal’s parents separated.
“Last year,” said Toni Nadal, Rafael’s uncle and coach, “was very difficult for us.”
And these days?
“Different guy,” Toni Nadal said. “Rafael now is so much better.”
The younger Nadal has won all 21 clay-court matches he’s played this season, and all 18 sets he’s played at this French Open. If can win again Sunday, he will join Bjorn Borg as the only men with at least five titles at the clay-court Grand Slam tournament. Borg won a record six.
Nadal was asked Friday how his game now stacks up against that of 12 months ago, and he had a ready response.
“Impossible to compare,” he said, “because last year I was in the swimming pool in Mallorca.”
Against Melzer, Nadal was pretty close to perfect for long stretches.
“It took me awhile to get used to the way he played,” said Melzer, who upset No. 3 Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals and No. 9 David Ferrer in the third round. “For two sets, I think, he was way better. But then, I mean, I kept fighting. I kept my head in there. I tried whatever I could try just to get him a little worried — and I did.”
Indeed, only at the very end — or what seemed to be the very end — did Nadal have trouble. Serving for the match at 5-4 in the third set, he missed three consecutive groundstrokes to fall behind love-40. Then Nadal capped what might very well be the worst game you’ll ever see him play by double-faulting, hitting a second serve so awkwardly that the ball bounced before it reached the net. Broken to 5-all, Nadal grinned sheepishly.
He later acknowledged he was distracted, figuring the match was all but over. Yes, Nadal was thinking ahead to the final.
But not necessarily thinking ahead to Soderling. Actually, Nadal would have preferred to take on Berdych next.
“Because,” Nadal explained, “I won against him the last six times.”
He’s lost his last two matches against Soderling. But Nadal won their first three meetings, including a contentious encounter at Wimbledon in 2007. Nadal complained that Soderling didn’t say, “Hi” in the locker room. Soderling made fun of the way Nadal tugs at the back of his shorts.
Since then, though, Nadal said Friday, “I didn’t have not one problem with him.”
Away from the tennis court, anyway.
Asked if there’s something special about his nephew getting another crack at Soderling at the French Open, Toni Nadal replied: “No, no, no, no. Not special. It is especially difficult, but not special for us. Because to win Roland Garros is very special, but not the (opponent). It’s about winning.”
Watching Rafa Nadal churn his way through the claycourt season over the past few weeks, it seems nothing much has changed since his French Open triumph a year ago despite a lengthy injury layoff.
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