PARIS — Scurrying along the baseline as only he can, sliding through the red clay he rules, Rafael Nadal stretched to dig the ball out of a corner and fling it back over the net — once, twice, three times — during a 14-stroke exchange that ended when Robin Soderling sailed a shot long.
The French Open final was all of seven points old, and the message was unmistakable: Nadal's knees are fine now, which means he is an entirely different player from the one Soderling stunned at Roland Garros in 2009. That was the first loss of Nadal's career at this tournament, and it remains the only one.
His body sound, his mind at ease, Nadal played his unique brand of relentless, perpetual-motion tennis to handily beat the fifth-seeded Soderling 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 Sunday.
Nadal won his fifth French Open, his seventh Grand Slam title overall, and earned a return to No. 1, replacing Roger Federer. Nadal had topped the rankings for nearly a year until shortly after he lost to Soderling last year. Federer, who has been No. 1 for 285 weeks during his career, will remain one week short of the career mark of 286, set by Pete Sampras.
"I lost last year because I was not well-prepared, and I had very low morale last year as well. But this time, I'm back," said Nadal, who covered his face with a red towel and sobbed at match's end. "I'm back — and I win."
Yes, Nadal most definitely is back, and he's as good as — or perhaps even better than — ever.
"He has more or less one game," Soderling said, "but he does it so well."
Nadal is 38-1 overall at Roland Garros and, three days after his 24th birthday, stands one French Open title shy of Bjorn Borg's record of six. For the second time in three years, Nadal won the tournament without losing a set.
Nadal's uncle, Toni, who has coached the Spaniard since he was 4, called Sunday's performance "one of the best matches I've ever seen Rafael play."
Nadal was far superior in every aspect, from start to finish, in improving to 38-4 with four titles this season, both tour bests.
He saved all eight break points he faced. He returned well, too, against a guy who tops 140 mph, managing to hit the same number of aces Sunday, seven apiece, even though Soderling had 75 and Nadal only 12 through the semifinals. He made 16 unforced errors, 29 fewer than Soderling.
And he never allowed his big-swinging foe to dictate points the way the 6-foot-4 Soderling did in his pair of career-defining upsets — against Nadal in last year's fourth round and against defending champion and top-seeded Federer in this year's quarterfinals.
Part of that was a result of going after Soderling's weaker backhand side at the outset of points. Mainly, though, it was thanks to Nadal's sublime scrambling, side to side, forward and backward, never relaxing, nearly always forcing Soderling to conjure up more than one brilliant shot to win a single point.
"I think he felt, like, everything he tried, he had to play three or four winners every point to be able to win it," said Soderling's coach, 2000 French Open runnerup Magnus Norman. "So it was tough."
Not that this match was competitive, but there were a few key moments. The first came 21 minutes in, when Nadal broke for a 3-2 lead with an on-the-run, crosscourt backhand passing winner that dropped right in a corner, leaving Soderling shaking his head.
The next came a half-hour later, when Nadal watched Soderling float a forehand wide, ending the first set. Nadal entered Sunday 94-1 when winning the opening set of a Grand Slam match.
What would turn out to be Soderling's last stand came in the second set's second game, when he compiled four break points. Nadal saved the first with an ace. He saved the second when Soderling sent a backhand long to cap a 10-stroke exchange.
The third was a masterpiece. It began with Soderling smacking a backhand return so well that his backers in the crowd began cheering, assuming the point was over. But Nadal sprinted over, crouched down and chopped the ball back. Thus began an 11-stroke point, in which Nadal blocked a Soderling overhead smash, then moved to the net and caressed a drop volley winner.
On the fourth break point, Soderling made the first of three consecutive return errors. Instead of Soderling leading 2-0, it was 1-all. Three games later, Nadal broke to begin a run of seven games in a row, pretty much settling things.
"That's why he's so good — because he's moving so well and gets everything back," said Soderling, 25. "He's a great defensive player but also has a great offensive game as well. He can really change defense to offense really quick."