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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, June 5, 2010

Nadal, Soderling won't let the past get in way

Associated Press

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Robin Soderling, who handed Rafael Nadal his only loss in 38 French Open matches, meets Nadal in tomorrow's final.

MICHEL EULER | Associated Press

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PARIS All Rafael Nadal cares about is winning a fifth French Open championship.

Doesn't matter how he's played until now.

Doesn't matter that he can regain the No. 1 ranking with one more victory.

And, the Spaniard insists, it certainly doesn't matter to him one bit that in tomorrow's final, he gets a chance to face the only man he's lost to at Roland Garros, Sweden's Robin Soderling. The tantalizing prospect of a Nadal-Soderling rematch with a Grand Slam title on the line is something for others to ponder.

"I never believe (in) revenge," Nadal said after he and Soderling won their semifinals yesterday. "I will be as happy or as disappointed if I lose to Robin or to any other player. I don't think this is going to change the way I'll approach the match."

Perhaps that's true. Still, there's one key stat that won't go away: Nadal boasts a 37-1 career record at the French Open, with Soderling responsible for the lone setback, upsetting the four-time champion in the fourth round a year ago en route to a runner-up finish.

"It's always good to have beaten a player before. I know that I can beat him. I showed it," said Soderling, who knocked off defending champion Roger Federer in the quarterfinals Tuesday. "But, again, every match is a new match, and every match is different."

Yesterday's two semifinals hardly could have contrasted more.

First came the No. 5-seeded Soderling's grueling, serve-it-and-slug-it victory over No. 15 Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic, a 6-3, 3-6, 5-7, 6-3, 6-3 test that required 3 1/2 hours. Then came the No. 2-seeded Nadal's far-less-competitive 6-2, 6-3, 7-6 (6) win over No. 22 Jurgen Melzer of Austria.

With the sun shining, and the temperature climbing above 80 degrees, the 6-foot-4 Soderling and the 6-foot-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.

Both were troubled by double-faults at important moments, including Berdych's on a break point that put Soderling ahead 4-2. It was only the sixth game of a match that would contain 48, yet Berdych called that the closest thing to a turning point.

That assessment seems a tad odd, given that Berdych came back to win the next two sets, when Soderling's strokes went awry and he made nearly half his 63 unforced errors.

"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."

But Soderling came through. He pounded his right fist on his chest after taking advantage of another double-fault, plus two backhands into the net, by Berdych to lead 4-2 in the fourth set. And in the fifth, with Berdych tiring, Soderling earned a key break point at 3-all with a backhand passing winner.

Soderling swept the last four games, and in the last, he showed he was still fresh, ripping a forehand passing shot down the line while on the run, part of a 33-12 edge in groundstroke winners from the baseline.

When Berdych sailed a backhand wide to close a 15-stroke exchange on match point, Soderling looked on the verge of tears, and he pulled his shirt over his face. Then he sat in his green changeover bench and bowed his head, aware that he'd earned a trip to his second major final.

"Hopefully," Soderling said, "I won't be as nervous as I was last year."

Nadal would love to forget last year and not just because of his loss to Soderling. In addition to failing to regain the French Open title, Nadal went through tendinitis in his knees, a problem that limited his movement against Soderling in Paris.

"I was very happy with the win and my run here last year. I still am," Soderling said. "It doesn't matter who I played or who I beat or if he was injured or not."

Nevertheless, those knees forced Nadal to withdraw from Wimbledon instead of defending his championship there. And then he ceded the No. 1 ranking to Federer, who will give it back if Nadal wins tomorrow.

Most bothersome of all was what happened off the court in 2009: Nadal's parents separated.

"Last year," said Toni Nadal, Rafael's uncle and coach, "was very difficult for us."

And these days?

"Different guy," Toni Nadal said. "Rafael now is so much better."