PARIS — The unsparing headline on the Roland Garros daily program read, “Parfum de Revanche” — the smell of revenge. It referred to Robin Soderling’s hopes to avenge his loss to Federer in the ’09 final.
But the headline writers should have saved their “A” material for the final. Yes, Roger Federer is Rafael Nadal’s prime problem and Rafa’s coach Toni Nadal says his match up against Federer is tougher than against Soderling. But, the Swede has been a particularly annoying nemesis.
You see there are certain taboo subjects you don’t go to in tennis and at the ’07 the young, less than popular, Swede had the temerity to mock young Nadal and his ongoing habit at pulling at his backside — thus “Wedgie-gate.”
Worse yet, there was the explosive win Soderling scored at last year’s Roland Garros, pinning on Nadal his first ever loss at the French, a defeat which helped precipitate the loss of his No. 1 spot.
He would see his ranking drop to No. 4 and would not claim another crown for close to a year.
There were many doubters (including Rafa himself.)
Sure, at the time Rafa was suffering from painful knees, the sorrow of the divorce in his family and (very briefly) the frosty reaction of the French crowd.
But it was the Swede who did the damage. Rafa did not forget and before the final he was asked about his relationship with the man at the center of Wedgie-gate — the Swede with the Ivan Lendl-like personality (which some say has a tad of Darth Vader and a dash of Peter Pan) Rafa offered a most curious commentary.
Soderling, he said “improve(d) his level of kind of person, no? I think he improve his personality the last year ..I think he say more times hello.”
In fact, the Swede has been saying howdy and hello many times of late. With his penchant to rob victories from the rich, Soderling is fond of tapping his inner Robin Hood, if you will. (He not only put Rafa’s year off the track in ’09, this week he stopped Fed’s fab run of reaching the semis 23 straight times, and scored wins over the considerable Marin Cilic and Tomas Berdych. None other than his fellow Swede Bjorn Borg, said Soderling has “played perfect tennis and become No. 1 faster than we expect.”
Yes, Rafa had to want a payback win. But revenge aside, the RG promised to be a battle of contrasting realities: Righty vs southpaw, Scandanavian cool vs Mediterrean hot, flat blast master vs. “loopie” fighter with fab wheels, Grand Slam wannabe vs. the best, with Borg, of all time on clay. And sages knew one thing. It was important for the Swede to sprint from the starting gate.
Flashing one of his astonishing cross-court backhand (“can’t touch this”) winners to the corner, the Majorcan master broke and sprinted off court.
He never looked back. Broadcaster Craig Gabriel announced, “This final is over and done right now.”
But the imposing Swede had other ideas.
He blasted his missives. He served big. He seemed to pin Rafa. But the great escape artist with the bulging biceps and mighty heart would not be overpowered. Strokes dictate, experience counts, will matters, belief prevails.
Still at 3-4 the Swede could not convert three break points. Against any fighter you most pounce when you have the opportunity. But time and again, deep into ferocious rallies, Soderling’s blasts sailed just long.
Nadal, the greatest defense to offense artist of our era, toughed out the first set.
This was bad news for Soderling. Loose the first set against the Spanish spinmeister and you probably will be toast. Nadal had a 93-1 record after winning the first set.
But Soderling barely blinked and had four (count ‘em) break points in the second game of the second set. But today he was the second fiddle. Failing on a backhand to the open court, messing up an overhead he perhaps should have punished, Soderling had to be asking, “how do I break down this guy?” How many winners must I unleash just to get a point. After all Rafa explodes his entire body most of his strokes. A warrior who treats EVERY point as a pitch battle, he is a wall, a
bull fighter who seemed almost to be almost taunting the power broker. The tall man had his chances. But cynics could not help ask: how do you spell s-q-u-a-n-d-e-r?
When Robin hit a Nadal second serve long and Rafa finally held serve in that critical second set game, the crowd murmured.
The Swede was on the ropes. There were hints of resignation. He slapped his strings, swiped at balls and kicked the clay which showed him so little mercy.
Rafa now sensed that his fifth French title, his fourth clay title of the year, the No. 1 ranking and a huge dose of that most precious commodity – redemption – were now all within in grasp.
As the great champion he is, he sprinted, barely blinking as he approached the finish line where, after his 6-4, 6-2,6-4 victory, he collapsed in joy and relief and offered some Federer-like tears (but in the privacy of his towel) before going to shake the hand of his Queen Sofia.
Later he reflected on this most meaningful of turn arounds.
Here are some excerpts from his English and Spanish press conference.
Q. I think we could tell by your emotions afterwards that it was a really, really special day?
RAFAEL NADAL: Yeah. Very important victory for me. I think one of the most important victories in my career, .
Yeah, I told you 100 times, but was a difficult year for me the last year. So after this tournament last year was a difficult year, and I worked a lot to be here. I was very nervous during all the tournament, because I know before that that I was ready to try to win another time, and I saw the chances there.
But the very positive thing is today I was ready to play. I was ready to play with calm…For me it’s Roland Garros. This is the most important thing for me, no? (Pointing to trophy.)… When I was crying after the match, the last thing I was thinking was on the No. 1.
The first thing is the title and all the hours I worked a lot to be here another time. Was very difficult to play against Robin… It’s almost impossible to have the control of the points against him. Today I felt great physically. I felt perfect mentally, too. I run. My movements was much better today than the rest of all the tournament. So I am very happy how I played today, because I play with very good tactic…[This title) iis one of the most important because I had difficult year, and for some moments was difficult to accept the injuries and everything. You know, for moments you don’t know if you are ready another time to compete…At the same time, sometimes is a big frustration when you are in U.S. Open and you broke your an abdominal one week before and you are in Australia and have to retire during the quarterfinals match…these moments are difficult to accept.
[Today] is one of the more important moments in my career. But no, final of Wimbledon was amazing; second title here was amazing, and the first one, too.
Q. When you won, did you feel that this was a triumph over all the hardships?
RAFAEL NADAL: You know how many hours you had on court, how many hours you was thinking and working to play your best tennis, how much time you wait to win another time a title. For me was 11 months without win a title, so a lot of tournaments going back to home without a victory. A lot of moments, difficult moments, because in a few of these tournaments I had to retired for the problems…It was personal goal to be back at my best. So I did…The biggest thing is the personal satisfaction to be here, to be here another time and to be at the top level…[But] tomorrow in afternoon I gonna be practicing on Queen’s.
Q. Was there any point in the past year where you feared that you would not get back…
RAFAEL NADAL: Sure. I think everybody have doubts… I am not an exception.
Q. When you were sitting on the bench today with the towel in your face, in the towel, what was going through your mind?
RAFAEL NADAL: I was there crying, but was really emotional moment…I didn’t thought about a lot of things but the moment, and after, a lot of nervous, a lot of pressure and a difficult year.
After you win this big title is, everything is— you lose your tension.
Q. Do you feel like the best ever on clay now?
RAFAEL NADAL: No. No, I sure that the numbers are unbelievable for me, no? I never thought to have the chance to win this tournament, five titles, five times or Monte‑Carlo six or Barcelona five…or Rome for me five. That’s more than a dream. When I see these titles and these numbers, for me is amazing. I don’t know how I did. But first of all, you gonna be very arrogant if I say for myself I am the best of the history. Second thing, I don’t believe I am the best of the history. I try my best every day, and we will see when I finish my career. I not gonna be who decide if I am the best or not. You maybe, but not me, sure.
Q. Will you celebrate tonight, or what are the plans?
RAFAEL NADAL: Difficult to have a big celebration if you have to practice tomorrow.
Can you explain your tears? Were you crying of joy?
RAFAEL NADAL: Relief, joy. Joy, certainly. It was a great personal satisfaction, because my family, my team, myself, all those who supported me and helped me be back…Well, it’s true that I played this tournament with more anxiety. I was slightly more nervous than usual. I went through difficult moments because I couldn’t find, you know, my momentum on the court. Then it was very emotional, you know, winning, and last week Astruch died. I was very sad. I couldn’t attend the funerals, and this was a delightful woman. We miss her, and that was very sad for me.
Q. So you’ve equalled McEnroe and Wilander’s record. Do you consider yourself as a great tennis player?
RAFAEL NADAL: No, that’s exactly the kind of question I don’t like, because then people say I’m arrogant, that I’m fat‑headed. What do you mean, being a great player? As I said, I try to play my best tennis, to play my best game, to do everything I can. If figures and statistics say I’ve been a good player over the last years, well, I’ll continue and play as best as I can to maintain those figures as long as I can. As I said, it’s a huge pleasure for me to be here in Paris. I am in Paris. I won in Paris. I’m very lucky, and I was very fortunate in life to have had the opportunity of experiencing all this at the age of 24. Never in my wildest dream would I have dreamt of such beautiful presents. Life was very kind to me.