But for Soderling, Nadal would probably be seeking a sixth consecutive French Open title today. Now the Swede stands in his way to a 22nd consecutive win on clay.
Revenge not Nadal's agenda
Forget revenge or being top of the world rankings. All Rafael Nadal will care about today against Sweden's Robin Soderling will be reclaiming his French Open title. Circumstances have conspired to create an intriguing men's singles final between the Spaniard and the Swede who ambushed his hopes of a fifth consecutive title here last year with a victory that reverberated far beyond Roland Garros.
Following that fourth-round defeat, Nadal's career hit its lowest ebb when knee problems prevented him defending his Wimbledon title and he slipped back below Roger Federer in the rankings. Many feared his career was in decline and he has not won a grand slam title for 16 months. Fast forward a year and the 24-year-old looks as irresistible as ever on his beloved clay courts. He is yet to drop a set thus far in the tournament and has won 21 consecutive matches on the red soil, taking in titles in Monte Carlo, Rome and Madrid during the build-up to Roland Garros.
The Mallorcan boasts a 37-1 record at the French Open, but the one blemish still niggles him. But for Soderling, Nadal would probably be seeking a sixth consecutive French Open title today. Now the Swede and his heavy-artillery tennis stands in his way again. "I never believe in revenge, I believe in trying my best in every moment. If I lose, I lose, and I'll congratulate Robin because he did better than me," Nadal said in a press conference.
"For me, revenge doesn't exist in any match, and especially in the final at Roland Garros." Some have even hyped up the final as a grudge match as Soderling has got under Nadal's skin on previous occasions, particularly during a five-set clash at Wimbledon in 2007, where he imitated the Spaniard's habit of yanking his shorts. Nadal, though, insists there is no bad feeling. He said: "After that I didn't have one problem with him. I think he is doing well, and at the same time he improves his level of tennis. I think he improved his personality."
That Soderling has improved his tennis is beyond doubt. The 25-year-old, whose game is based on a huge first serve and a punishing forehand, was too much for defending champion Federer in the quarter-finals here. He almost met his match against Tomas Berdych in the semi-final on Friday, eventually winning in five sets against a player with almost identical weapons. What gave the Swede the edge was the self-belief that soared after beating Nadal last year.
He also beat Nadal at the World Tour Finals in London last November and clearly believes he can do it again. "We played many times. He beat me a lot of times, and I beat him a few times. It's always good to have beaten a player before. I know that I can beat him. I showed it," Soderling said. "Hopefully I won't be as nervous as I was last year (against Federer). Not only the final here last year, I played many big matches the last year against good players on big courts."
Victory would take Soderling into the top four in the world rankings, while Nadal will usurp Federer at the top if he is victorious. "If I win on Sunday, it's gonna be the last thing that I think about," Nadal said. "I'm No 2, I'm happy where I am. Roland Garros is only one time. No 1 is still there for a few more months." * Reuters