Just like Francesca Schiavone yesterday, Rafael Nadal would meet the man who so unceremoniously dismissed him at last year's French Open in the championship match. And just like Schiavone yesterday, Nadal would turn the tables on his previous vanquisher and prove that he really is the man to beat on clay.
In the days heading into this year's finals, all talk was around that -- how important was gaining revenge on the only man who's ever defeated him at Roland Garros? Nadal was quick to deny that that was what he was after. "I never think about revenges," he said after beating Nicolas Almagro in the quarters. "When I go on court, I don't think if I lost last time is gonna be revenge. I never go by this way. I think if you think that, your mind is not 100 percent calm to think what you have to do."
Whether that is wholly true or not, I'll never know, but as Rafa played in his fifth title match in Paris on Sunday it certainly looked like there was only one thing on his mind -- winning.
And it wasn't an easy task. His opponent, Robin Soderling, had not only found a way to conquer Nadal last year, but he'd avenged his own loss in the '09 finals by shocking defending champ Roger Federer in this year's quarters. He'd actually gotten through four tough seeds in a row, only looking to be slight trouble against Tomas Berdych in the semifinals -- he survived the three-and-a-half hour five-setter by breaking the feisty Czech in the decider.
The first set lived up to expectations. Soderling had the first break opportunity early, but Nadal held on and actually broke the Swede on his next service game. Robin held tough to save several more opportunities for Rafa to gain an even bigger lead and had a chance to level the score later in the first set, but the Spaniard stayed just a bit stronger. The world #7 was trying to be aggressive, but it seemed there was no shot the four-time champion couldn't get to, and after two weeks of playing some of the cleanest tennis of the tournament, Soderling sprayed an amazing twenty-one errors to Nadal's eight.
By the second set it seemed some of the spring had been taken out of Soderling's step. Whether he realized the inevitable or was just tired, he simply wasn't playing at his best. He failed to convert on any of the four break chances he had while Rafa fired off winner after winner, dabbled with some nice net work and shot three aces past his opponent. With a two-set lead, Nadal must have known the trophy was in his sights and when he got the break in the third, there really was no looking back. He had won his fifth title at Roland Garros, second only to the legendary Bjorn Borg, and his seventh Major trophy, second only to Roger Federer among active men players.
There was so much more riding on this win than just the trophy. Of course Nadal returns to the #1 spot he'd held for forty weeks; he also became the first man to qualify for the year-end championships in London. But most importantly, he's silenced all those critics who claimed he was no longer a force in tennis.
And, let's be honest, it's not just clay court tennis he could dominate -- with eleven of his forty titles, two of them Majors, coming on other surfaces, he is certainly trying to make himself an all-court player. As he mentioned to John McEnroe at the end of his match today, he can't wait to see us all at the U.S. Open, the only Slam he has yet to win. With the hardcourt season just about a month away, we'll soon get an idea of whether Rafael Nadal stands a chance to achieve the career Grand Slam just a year after Federer did it. And suddenly no one dares say he doesn't have the stuff to do it.
So Nadal's performance today in Paris proved that there is something better than revenge, and that's sweet, sweet redemption.