by Pete Bodo
He was big, and getting bigger. Swelling up with every one of those bolo topspin forehands, expanding inside with each of those rifle-shot serves that found the corner of the box. Rafael Nadal led Robin Soderling in the Roland Garros men's singles final 6-4, 6-2, 3-2 (with a break). But the pressure was still growing as he built his lead to 5-2, as if he were tethered to an air hose and still ballooning out like a two-story float meant to bob along on a tether in a parade. He began the match game with an ace.
It had been a rough year for Nadal, the 24-year-old youth who is redefining our ideas about clay-court tennis (although it's difficult to imagine anyone developing a knock-off of his extreme style). There was that painful fourth-round loss to Robin Soderling right here in Paris just over a year ago. Talk of turmoil in his home. Bad knees. Missing Wimbledon. A reluctant withdrawal from the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. It was the third time he was unable to defend a Grand Slam title in a year, yet he was stymied in that effort by a better man, on the day, only once. He had three legs of a Grand Slam of Frustration, and so what if it wasn't in a calendar year?
And along with the frustrations there were fears and doubts, for Nadal is a conscientious, humble kid who is painfully aware of how temporary glory in tennis can be—he almost seems haunted by it. When he was asked if, at any point during the past 12 months, he worried about losing it all, he said: "Sure, I think everybody have doubts, have his doubts on himself, no? I am no exception."
Then, with three, four swings of the racquet, it suddenly was all over, really all over—doubts and all. He had won, 6-4 in the third.
Nadal fell to the clay and lay flat on his back. He got up, started for his chair, and decided he wanted to spend a little more quality time in the dirt he so loves. He did a sort of shoulder roll, like they teach toddlers in Gymboree, back onto the clay, and lay there for a little while longer.
And when he got up and finally found his chair, he buried his face in a towel, sobbing. Tears streamed down his clay-caked, transported face. And all that air, that pressure, that gas, it all escaped, hissed out as if someone had punctured the float. In just seconds, Rafa had reduced to normal size. Human size. Shrank back down into the Rafa so many know and love, a gritty young man came to realize that all those fears and anxieties were all for naught.
As it turned out, the match was not the bitter, tense, nip-and-tuck struggle that so many had hoped to see and quite a few pundits had predicted. The handwriting was on the wall, or more accurately on the red-dirt floor of the court Chatrier, from the very first game. Between points and stepping up to the service notch, Soderling seemed to move gingerly, like a sedentary fellow might on the day after he'd taken a 20-mile bicycle ride. The impression was promulgated by the way Soderling moved and addressed the ball in the first set—the one he had to win, by almost any measure, if he hoped to become the men's singles champion today.
Time and again, Soderling had trouble moving his substantial frame into ideal position to really load up and fire. By contrast, Nadal, who hadn't lost a set in this tournament, was quick as a cat and just as patient, if not exactly in the leisurely manner of a cat watching a mouse hole. But he knew that it was imperative to keep the ball in play, to put pressure on Soderling all day long. As Nadal's coach and uncle, Toni Nadal, would later say, "The plan was to go right at Soderling's backhand, right from the first swing, and then to play as aggressively as possible from there on."
The strategy was wise, because Soderling can do a lot of damage with his forehand. But it was also important, it seems in retrospect, to keep grinding, to wear down the Bunyanesque Swede who had fought a grueling five-set battle with Tomas Berdych in the semifinals.
The conventional wisdom is that the day off between matches at Grand Slam events gives a player adequate time for recovery. That's true, but only in the sense that the system beats having to play every day. Occasionally some man or woman defies logic and reaches down to draw upon reserves of stamina and energy in a way that defies analysis—and biomedical knowledge. But occasionally, a fierce five-setter will also leave a guy with hurts and tender points that no 24-hour span can adequately heal. Soderling was in the second category today.
The other day, during a Tennis Channel broadcast, Martina Navratilova made a similar point when analyzing Sam Stosur's chances in the women's final that she would ultimately lose. Navratilova reminded viewers that sometimes the second day after a particularly grueling bout of exertion can be worse than the first.
This was my evolving theory in the first few games. By game five, my notebook posed a reminder to myself: "heavy legs for Sod?" And after the second game of the second set, in which Nadal came back from a 15-40 deficit to hold, I jotted, "The backbreaker?"
I was stimulated to write that note because of the two backhand service return errors that were critical to Nadal's hold. Granted, they were solid serves to the backhand side. But in each case, Soderling was unable to get his shoulders turned to take one of his trademark hammer-throw swings with both hands on the racquet. Worse yet, each swing was a feeble chop/slice produced after a desultory shuffle of his Lotto gunboats.
The next game was equally significant, if for a different reason. One that may provide Soderling with cold comfort. He held that game at love, declaring that one thing he would not do is fold his hand. Soderling did not play a great match; the way I saw it, there was no way that he could. But his heart took up a surprising amount of the slack left by his other muscles.
Now I have a confession to make. When I asked Soderling about this, point-blank, he replied: "Yeah, it was a tough match [against Berdych]. I think all matches I played here has been tough in different ways, you know. It's really difficult to stay focused for two weeks playing many matches. So they're all tough, but physically I feel fine. It was okay. It's not why I lost today."
He's a curious fellow, this tight-lipped Swede, and in my opinion he has a curious kind of pride. His motto might well be: Give no quarter, ask none. It's the only way I can rationalize how wildly off the mark my own interpretation appears. I respect Soderling, but I simply find it hard to buy his basic analysis: "Every match is different. The margins are very small. Of course, I didn't play as good this year as I did against him last year. I didn't serve as well. I wasn't hitting the ball as clean. It was a tough day. I didn't really get into the match."
All of which begs the questions: Why, why, why and why?
All I know is that when Nadal racked up that second break for 5-2 in the second set, I closed my notebook, convinced it was over, and adjourned to my desk in order to eat a sandwich jambon avec moutarde, washed down with a bottle of Vittel.
The straight-set scores may not suggest it, but Soderling was also manifestly dangerous, because he was unflaggingly courageous. Nadal had to pay attention to every hold game, for the occasions on which Soderling betrayed his fatigue (Soderling's mediocre 56 percent first-serve conversion percentage is significant, especially when you consider the role played by the legs in the only stroke that you can hit entirely on your own terms) were almost always followed by a flurry of resistance. He sure is a guy who takes a lot of killing.
But nobody appears to draw greater satisfaction from inflicting a long and painful demise than Nadal. And today, I thought his defense was exceptional. He kept numerous points going just long enough for Soderling to make the inevitable error, thanks to Nadal's superb retrieving abilities. Does anyone convert a desperate retrieve into an opportunity to attack, to take control, as skillfully as Nadal?
No. Not now, and in my experience, not ever.
Of his defense, Nadal said: "Robin is very difficult to play against because he has a big serve, very flat shots, and they are long [deep]. Very good shots from both sides, forehand and backhand, and he is very difficult to control. It's almost impossible to have 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....I think the movements was at my best level today."
The most significant statistic was Soderling's 0-8 conversion rates on break points. I have no cockamamie theories on that number; just put it down to Nadal's mental toughness and level of execution. As he said, beaming: "Every week we have the statistics, and I am the No. 1 player on break points saved of the year. So...specialist?"
Laughter resounded throughout the room.
Nadal said that winning the title here meant more to him than reclaiming the No. 1 position (which he has now done), but among those who begged to differ was the Queen Sofia of Spain, who sat through the entire match and never once looked at her watch.
On her way out of the stadium, the Queen told my colleague Alejandro Delmas (don't ask how he came to have a word with the Queen; let's just say Al...has his ways) that the most important thing, for her, was that Nadal was No. 1 again.
That was certainly good enough for me.
For more on the clay-court game, Roland Garros, and Rafael Nadal, check out my new e-book, The Clay Ran Red.