Rafael Nadal proves he is unbeatable in Paris once again

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
rafael nadal

Nadal has become only the second man to win five French Open titles

There was a certain inevitability, a certain rightness, and perhaps even a certain justice about the conclusion of the 2010 French Open.

For there was Rafael Nadal, holding La Coupe des Mousquetaires once again. In beating Robin Söderling 6-4 6-2 6-4, he reclaimed the title he had won four times before. The justice, for Nadal, is that he did so by beating the man who had deprived him of his tilt at the title last year.

Many thought Söderling had it in his power to repeat the feat this year. He had, after all, knocked out world No.1 Roger Federer in the quarter-finals and showed real strength—both in his tennis and his character—in beating the big, talented Czech, Tomas Berdych, in the semi-final.

But this year he was not just up against a more complete player than the one who was struggling with tendonitis in 2009. He was playing a man who believes that Roland Garros is as much his home as the Majorcan waterfront. Nadal’s body language and his determination to win this title must in themselves have been worth a point in each game.

The conditions, as if to shine on Nadal’s campaign, also turned in the Spaniard’s favour. The sun came out, the temperature rose, and the court had been given a particularly generous top-dressing—presumably in case the weather decided to rain on Nadal’s parade. As it dried out, the bounce got sharper and the surface more slippery.

Söderling’s movement has improved enormously over the last 12 months but he will never be a match for the flying feet, controlled skidding and trip-wire turning circle of Nadal.

But the game would be won and lost as much on Söderling’s ability to serve as he had done for the rest of the tournament as on Nadal’s superior movement. From the off, it was clear this was not the case.

Söderling topped the tournament for aces with 82, but he managed just seven against Nadal. More serious, however, was that his overall first serve percentage was just 56% and Nadal’s a staggering 77%.

Without the bedrock of his lethal one-two—the serve out wide, followed by a drive to the opposite corner—Söderling had to fight for most of his own service games and then, as all players do, found it difficult to break through the Nadal’s game.

In the first set both men looked tense but Söderling’s lack of service rhythm gave Nadal the first break. It was only serving at 3-5, and 0-40 down, that Söderling seemed to relax, and he hit both serves and ground strokes with the sort of power that had bullied Federer off the court. He almost broke through Nadal’s serve too, but the Spaniard resisted to win the first set.

The second set began much as the first with many closely-fought rallies. Söderling started to find the range on his off-forehand and even had break points on the Nadal serve.

The crowd, sensing a comeback from the Swede, chanted his name in encouragement, but it only seemed to draw more pace and power from Nadal. As a result, Söderling began once more to push his deep forehand inches long. It set the precedent for the match. Söderling failed to convert any of his eight break points.

That was the signal for Nadal to truly hit a purple patch. His serving improved to 81% for the set, and he retrieved some near-impossible drives from Söderling, pulled off touch volleys, and began to produce unreturnable drives of his own.

It became the familiar Nadal story. The better he played, the more confident he became, the more audacious his returning, and the more overwhelming his presence. He produced just four unforced errors in each of the second and third sets, and his vastly improved serving—accurate, swerving and consistent—proved to be a formidable new weapon in his artillery.

So while the third set began as competitively as the other two, Nadal had already smelt victory. Söderling, to his enormous credit, stayed positive and aggressive, but 45 unforced errors confirmed that he was up against an immovable object.

When the moment came, Söderling was gracious in defeat, and Nadal was overcome by emotion. Never before has he sobbed so openly, in victory or loss.

How appropriate too, that Nadal became only the second man to win five French titles on the very birthday of the first man to do so.

Nadal now seems destined to match the great Björn Borg’s tally of six: same time, same place, 2011. Before that, he will relish the prospect of challenging for the World Tour Finals title, for in winning at Roland Garros, he has also become the first man to qualify for that season-ending showdown.

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