It’s not Rafael Nadal against Roger Federer for the French Open title Sunday morning, but arguably it’s the next best thing. With deference to clay purists who may have preferred David Ferrer or Fernando Verdasco playing tomorrow, Robin Soderling’s return to the French Open finals adds some extra kick to the title match, especially so because Nadal finally gets a proper chance at revenge.
It was Soderling a year ago stunning Nadal in the French Open fourth round in one of the most memorable and surprising upsets in recent tennis history. As I wrote back then, Robin effectively punched Nadal in the face and knocked him. Now, to collect his first Grand Slam title the hot-headed Swede will have to do it again.
Yes, an encore. Good luck.
Nadal may not be playing his best – he’s played better – but he’s got to be zoned in on taking down Robin and not just for having his revenge but also re-establishing himself as the undisputed King of Clay.
“I never believe on revenges. I believe on try my best in every moment, and if I lose, I lose, and congratulate Robin because he did better than me,” Nadal said Friday. “You know, for me, doesn’t exist revenge in not one match, and especially we talk about final of Roland Garros.”
Soderling, however, is among the few who has that rare win over Nadal and the confidence that he can do it again.
“Well, we played many times,” the Swede said. “He beat me a lot of times, and I beat him a few times. So it was not the last match. You know, we played one or two times after that. But of course it’s always good to have beaten a player before. I know that I can beat him. I showed it. But, again, you know, every match is a new match, and every match is different.”
Nadal still is ahead in their rivalry 3-2, but Robin has won five of the last six sets which includes a straight-set win in London last fall. However, you could make the case that Nadal wasn’t 100% right in the mind and body when he lost to Soderling a year ago in Paris nor was he in the best shape during in London.
That said, Soderling does bring a game that matches up well against Nadal. Here’s the breakdown.
It may not be the most powerful forehand in the sport (see Juan Martin Del Potro), but for me it’s still the most effective. And even against a power baller like Soderling, I give the heavy, lefty topspin that Nadal generates the edge over anybody, especially on the vast and familiar confines of court Philippe Chatrier.
Soderling can hit his any number of ways. Flat, spinny, hard and often harder. And with his big open stance and loopy string it hard to get on a read on the direction. But Nadal’s still won more Slams with that forehand than Robin’s won titles. And that’s what counts.
Perhaps one of the most underrated shots in the game, Nadal’s backhand doesn’t produce the electrifying winners that his forehand does, but it’s his rock. He rarely misses, often passes and on occasion can create some jaw-dropping angles off that wing. Soderling’s got a dynamite backhand as well, but it’s simply more prone to errors than Nadal’s.
Soderling proved in his win over Federer just how good his serve can be. In heavy, wet conditions the 25-year-old still was able to bomb away at Federer who is one of the better returners in tennis. Meanwhile, Nadal’s serve continues to be his weakness. Rafa hasn’t dropped a set during this French Open but the fact is players are still getting break chances on the dirt with some regularity. And that’s worrisome.
Both are solid and in and around the net. Soderling’s a little more aggressive in his approach whereas Nadal usually makes visits to the net when the point is well in control. The match tomorrow probably won’t be won or lost up there – Soderling doesn’t use the dropshop much – but the more Rafa’s off the baseline the better for the Swede.
Soderling moves darn well for a big guy, especially on the clay, but Nadal’s a horse.
Soderling has won two straight over Nadal but the element of surprise Robin had in Pars last year is long gone. Nadal has a full 48 hours to focus on beating Soderling plus having to taste the sting of that loss for the last 12 months. And Soderling could be feeling some fatigue from his five set battle with Berdych Friday. If the conditions stay warm and dry that also helps Nadal, although rain is the chatter and that could become a factor.
Honestly, it wouldn’t shock me to see Robin win again. I think he’s playing better tennis and with more confidence right now than Nadal and better than he was a year ago when he beat the Spaniard. But with the situation and the scenario the way it is – Nadal gets revenge, gets No. 1, regains his King of Clay status – it’s difficult to see Rafa letting this opportunity slip away.
As I said, maybe last year Nadal wasn’t at 100%. Now he is. And he’s tailored this clay season around winning Sunday, June 6. That’s it. And having Soderling across the net has to make it even more important for Nadal.
But Soderling’s wins over Rafa are no flukes.
The Swede can handle Nadal’s go-to forehand-to-backhand exchanges about as well as anyone, and he can offer his own powerful forehand blow in return. Soderling also has a massive serve that gets him out trouble. And his fiery attitude seems to keep him from getting too caught up in the moment again bigtime players.
Matchup-wise, Soderling will have to go for his shots, serve big and keep Rafa on the defense especially on Nadal’s second serves. That means hard, penetrating shots which is really Soderling’s MO. For Nadal, he needs to minimize the errors and just play solid, claycourt tennis. If he’s making cheap errors than Soderling’s confidence will only increase.
And while Soderling did handily beat Federer, he was in some way lucky to get through Berdych. And that’s somewhat troubling.
This is also Soderling’s second time around in a Slam final. Unfortunately he’s running into another legend on Sunday. I like Nadal in three tight sets.
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