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By Alberto Amalfi

(June 6, 2010) The grudge match was a mismatch.

A supremely focused Rafael Nadal produced a convincing conquest to complete a historic clay-court sweep and restore Roland Garros order.

Nadal captured his fifth Roland Garros title in the last six years with a rousing 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 rout of Robin Soderling in today's French Open final to win his seventh career Grand Slam singles championship and put the exclamation point on a declaration of dirt dominance.

In one match, the 24-year-old Nadal boosted a brilliant clay-court career in avenging his lone French Open loss, surpassing 2009 champion Roger Federer to regain the World No. 1 ranking and becoming the first man in history to capture all three clay-court Masters 1000 championships — Monte Carlo, Rome and Madrid — and the French Open in the same season.

"Today is one of the most important victories of my career and it was very emotional today," said Nadal, who will officially reclaim the World No. 1 ranking when the new ATP rankings are released tomorrow. "It's the most emotional day of my career."

On championship point, a weary Soderling slapped a backhand into the net. Nadal slid into a skid, fell flat on his back, closed his eyes tightly screaming and pumping his fist in an exuberant eruption of exhilaration.

The muscular Mallorcan unleashed his trademark topspin strokes with all the fury of a prize fighter throwing uppercuts to complete his coronation without surrendering a set during this French Open fortnight in raising his Roland Garros career record to 38-1.

Only three men in the Open Era
— Ilie Nastase (1973), Bjorn Borg (1978 and 1980) and Nadal (2008 and 2010) — have won the French Open without dropping a set. Nadal stands behind only six-time champion Borg, who celebrated his 56th birthday today, for most French Open championships in the Open Era and solidified his status as the greatest clay-court champion of this generation.


On the national day of Sweden,
Soderling earned the first break point of the final, but bashed a backhand beyond the baseline. Nadal broke for a 3-2 lead, putting so much topspin on a backhand pass up the line, Soderling seemed certain the shot would stray long only to watch in disappointment as the ball settled inside the baseline giving Nadal the break.

A Nadal double fault deep gave Soderling a break point in the eighth game, but Soderling hit a forehand long. Two points later, Soderling had another break point, but pushed a backhand return deep. Nadal saved both break points to hold for 5-3.

Three consecutive errors from the lanky, loose-limbed Swede
— a double fault, a stary forehand and a forehand that crashed into the top of the tape and fell wide — gave Nadal triple set point. Soderling summoned his most penetrating serves of the set in responding with an ace, service winner and a diagonal forehand inside the sideline to reach deuce, eventually holding for 4-5 prompting some fans to chant "Soderling! Soderling!"

Nadal quickly pressed the mute button.

At 30-all in the next game, Soderling was surprised by the pace of Nadal's serve and sent a backhand return wide to give him a fourth set point. Soderling lined up a forehand, but sailed his inside-out attempt wide as Nadal
seized the first set in 55 minutes.

The seventh-seeded Soderling scored one of the most monumental upsets in Grand Slam history last May in shocking Nadal in a French Open fourth-round victory that snapped the reigning champion's 31-match winning streak in Paris.

On that day, Soderling went for broke in blasting an eye-popping 61 winners that often left Nadal waving his Babolat racquet at air as the blurring ball burst by him.

Today, Soderling's inability to break serve
Nadal erased all eight break points he faced, including four in a row in his first service game of the second set that effectively broke the Swede's spirit — combined with Nadal's raw desire to regain the title he treasures as if it is a family heirloom conspired to downsize the 6-foot-4 Soderling.

"I started off OK; to play against Rafa on clay it is very difficult and you need to play your best tennis, which maybe I didn't do today," Soderling said. "The margins are pretty small and of course I did not serve the way I did last year. I wasn't hitting the ball as clean and was not moving as well as I did last year. But maybe it did not matter if I played my best tennis anyway."

The problem Soderling faced is he hits the ball much flatter against the faster Nadal, who seems to shrink his side of the court to the size of a sand box. Soderling tried to drive the ball deep and open the angles to create short-ball opportunities, but once he got into running rallies Nadal was nearly always one shot better.

Nadal's ability to defend the largest court in Grand Slam tournament tennis can be downright demoralizing putting even the most optimistic opponent into a bleak streak. Losing the opening set on clay against Nadal is a virtual death sentence for the opposition: Nadal entered the final with an 84-1 record in Grand Slam play when winning the first set and a 184-4 mark on clay when winning the first set.

Soderling has posted Roland Garros wins over Federer and Nadal, two men who have combined to claim 23 Grand Slam championships, in successive years yet for all his efforts has no major to show for it.

The fifth-seeded Swede beat Federer in the quarterfinals and fought back for a five-set win over 15th-seeded Tomas Berdych in Friday's semifinals and conceded both matches took a toll leaving him physically and mentally spent by the third set today.

"It's been tough," Soderling said. "I played against Roger and against Tomas. They were really two tough matches physically and mentally. Of course I was tired but that's not why I lost. Rafa played unbelievable."

A year ago, Nadal, who was hampered by both tendinitis in his knees and lingering ennui over his parents' divorce, walked off the court wearing the solemn expression of a man walking into a haunted haze. He missed two months while recovering from his knee injury then played with a strained abnominal in absorbing a brutal beating at the hands of Juan Martin del Potro in the US Open semifinals. Winless in the ATP World Tour Finals in London last November, questions about Nadal's future emerged as he endured an 11-month title drought that spanned 13 tournaments.

Returning to clay in Monte Carlo with all the exuberance of a man returning to a red clay personal promised land, Nadal snapped the title drought by blowing Fernando Verdasco away in the Monte Carlo final, 6-0, 6-1, igniting a torrid tear that has seen him win 22 consecutive clay-court matches.

"I arrived to this final in completely different conditions (than last year)," Nadal said. "My movement today was much better than one year ago and I had more chance to move him than one year ago. I had to play my best tennis to beat him. (Last year) was a difficult year because of the divorce of my parents. I had the problem with my knee and after I came back I broke my abdominal at the US Open so (winning today) for me is very, very important personal satisfaction. I wanted to win today and today I did so I am very, very happy."

The match did more than settle an old score, it sets Nadal up for the second half of the season in which he could seal the season-ending No. 1 ranking. Nadal missed the entire grass-court season when he was sidelined for two months last year. He can add more ranking points between now and the US Open Series and with US Open champion Juan Martin del Potro out until at least September as he recovers from wrist surgery, Federer facing the prospect of defending ranking points from the Wimbledon title and US Open final and Nikolay Davydenko, a man who has consistently posed problems for Nadal on hard court also out with wrist surgery, the opportunity is there for Nadal to widen the gap between himself and Federer.

Even before their 2009 clash match, there was no love lost between Soderling and Nadal.

During Nadal's five-set win over Soderling in the 2007 Wimbledon, Soderling, frustrated by what he believed was Nadal's deliberate stalling tactics between points, openly mocked the Spaniard by picking at the seat of his shorts, a move Nadal is known for.

After the match, both men made disparaging remarks about each other.

"He’s very strange. I say hello seven times to his face and he never answers. I thought it was me but I asked around the locker room and almost nobody has anything nice to say about him. If I fall down, he says nothing. He touches his ass, grabs his pants, makes fun of me — very unprofessional."  Nadal said at the time.

While Nadal downplayed the raw edge that exists between the once feuding foes, saying "I never think about revenge" he competed with the complete commitment of a man who would not be denied a vendetta victory.

The second-seeded Spaniard strong armed Soderling in dispensing his brand of tennis torment with his high-bounding top-spin strokes that sapped the strength in Soderling's legs and lungs and ultimately drained the desire right out of the two-time French Open finalist.

With Queen Sofia watching on, Nadal extend Spain's reign at Roland Garros. A Spanish man has won seven of the last nine French Open championships with only Argentine Gaston Gaudio (2004) and Federer breaking Spain's stronghold on the title.

Nadal is a humble man and a proud champion who played hurt with knee tendinitis and was emotionally pained when French fans chanted "Soderling! Soderling!" during the Swede's gripping upset last May. He entered the court to loud applause today and displayed his class at the conclusion in both praising his nemesis, who had beaten Nadal in their last two matches, and speaking to the fans in French.

"I played my best match against you and if not it would be impossible to beat you," Nadal told the runner-up during the trophy presentation.


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