Imposing hurdle remains for Nadal

PARIS — If not for Robin Soderling, Rafael Nadal might be going for his sixth consecutive French Open title Sunday. Instead, he is one match from his fifth total title — only to find Soderling, the rangy, hard-hitting Swede, in his way again.

In a matchup juicy with symmetry and intrigue, Nadal and Soderling will play in the final at Roland Garros, having dispatched their semifinal opponents on a hot Friday afternoon.

Nadal, the No. 2 seed, beat No. 22 Juergen Melzer, 6-2, 6-3, 7-6 (8-6). Soderling needed more time and energy to bat away No. 15 Tomas Berdych, 6-3, 3-6, 5-7, 6-3, 6-3.

"He came back to win a very good match," Nadal said of Soderling. "He's a very, very dangerous player. He's one of the best of the world."

Soderling pulled off one of the great upsets in Grand Slam history last year. Nadal had never lost on the courts of Roland Garros, winning 31 matches and four championships in a row. Soderling was the 23rd seed when he beat Nadal in the fourth round.

Soderling lost last year's final to Roger Federer, but returned this year as a No. 5 seed to knock out Federer, the top-seeded defending champion, in Tuesday's quarterfinals.

"Now I am in the final again," Soderling said. "It's better than the best dream ever."

Nadal, who turned 24 on Thursday, has a 37-1 career record at Roland Garros. "It's always good to have beaten a player before," Soderling said of Nadal. "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 said he rooted for Berdych because he has a better record against him (7-3) than he does against Soderling (3-2).

"I never believe in revenge," Nadal said. "I believe in trying my best in every moment. And if I lose, I lose, and congratulate Robin because he did better than me."

Friday's semifinals hardly could have contrasted more.

First came Soderling's grueling, serve-it-and-slug-it victory that required 3½ hours. Then came Nadal's far-less-competitive win over Melzer.

The 6-foot-4 Soderling and the 6-5 Berdych traded big, quick shots. They have similar games, relying mainly on powerful serves — Berdych pounded 21 aces, Soderling 18 — and forehands that zip through the air.

"Today was really tough to really play my own game because he didn't give me any time at all," Soderling said. "The conditions were much quicker, and he was hitting the ball really hard and really flat."

The pairing in today's women's final is the biggest surprise yet from a tournament full of them.

Venus Williams and her red-and-black corset are gone. So are top-ranked Serena Williams and four-time champion Justine Henin, both beaten by Samantha Stosur, who showed those victories were no fluke by drubbing former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic in Thursday's semifinal.

Stosur, a Tampa resident, cracked the top 10 for the first time last month. The Australian is 26 but hardly a late bloomer compared with Francesca Schiavone, a 29-year-old Italian who will move into the top 10 for the first time next week.

Schiavone and the No. 7-seeded Stosur are first-time Grand Slam finalists.

"It's going to be a great for both of us, no matter who wins," Stosur said. "It's going to be a day we're both going to remember."

But Schiavone said it's wrong to think the surprise finalists have nothing to lose.

"Nothing to lose? No," she said. "When you want something, you have always something to lose."

Imposing hurdle remains for Nadal 06/05/10 [Last modified: Saturday, June 5, 2010 12:14am]

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