Battling Soderling to meet an in-form Nadal in French final
Take a look at the statistics. Rafael Nadal, in beating a valiant Jurgen Melzer 6-2 6-3 7-6 in the semi-final at Roland Garros, stretched his winning record on clay to a perfect 21-0.
He has accumulated 202 career wins on clay faster than any other man.
He has reached the French Open final for the fifth time, and for the third time without dropping a set.
He already has 28 clay-court titles -three of them this year from consecutive Masters victories in the run up to Paris.
He aims, on Sunday, to become the only man to win the ‘Clay Slam’ and, even more sweet, to take the No.1 ranking from Roger Federer. Yet Nadal turned 24 only two days ago.
For a while in this match it looked as though the 29-year-old Melzer might pull off the same trick he played against Novak Djokovic in the quarter-finals, where he went down two sets to love, and a break down in the third, only to seize the match back for a memorable win.
Melzer, a man of mighty talent, had failed to get beyond the third round of a Slam before, but looked capable of anything. So when he went two sets and break down again, and hauled Nadal back to a third set tie-breaker, the French crowd could barely contain themselves.
By all accounts, the drama of Melzer’s quarter-final comeback had galvanised his home country of Austria, and it sounded as though half of that undemonstrative nation had turned up at Philippe Chatrier to support their man.
It is rare that an umpire cannot calm a crowd with one or two biddings, but on this occasion the atmosphere exploded like a cork from a bottle of French champagne and would not be quelled. And Melzer, in another rare touch, applauded the support.
It was a tense tie-breaker, with some nervy errors from Nadal: perhaps an indication of just how much regaining this title means. But when he wants something, Nadal simply redoubles his effort. The third set was his, eight points to six.
This was, once again, a wonderful display of powerful and varied tennis from Melzer, and had he played Nadal before Djokovic carrying fresher legs, he may well have taken the Spaniard to five sets too. One thing is certain. No one will want to see his name in their quarter of the draw in the coming months.
But what of the man who battered reigning champion Nadal into submission in the fourth round in Paris last year, and did exactly the same to this year’s reigning champion, Federer?
Robin Soderling was matched against the only other man in the tournament who had not dropped a set, Tomas Berdych. The Czech’s progress had in fact been just as imposing as Soderling’s, taking out Andy Murray and Mikhail Youzhny in imperious style.
Soderling and Berdych, both towering right-handers in their mid-20s, and each with five titles to their names, last met in Miami this spring with the win going to Berdych. This semi-final would be no forgone conclusion.
And a look at the statistics for the match told the same story. Both had a top first serve of 140 mph, and both averaged 127 mph. They produced 18 and 21 aces respectively. Little wonder, then, that it should go to five sets, with Soderling taking the win 6-3 5-7 3-6 6-3 6-3.
But the story of the match, in practice, showed something more. Soderling’s shots did not come as freely nor the points as easily as in earlier rounds. He had to play ugly, and he had to guts it out. What this match showed was that Soderling has developed the mentality of a champion in the last year.
Some of the credit for this tougher, calmer player who knuckles down in adversity may be attributed to the guiding and firm hand of coach Magnus Norman. Soderling clearly draws strength from the presence of Norman, and his first salute on winning was aimed at his coach. Norman nodded his approval while Soderling fought back the tears.