The most difficult year of Rafael Nadal's career is poised to turn full circle. Twelve months after Robin Soderling brought his French Open empire crashing down around his ears, the Spaniard will have the opportunity to put the finishing touches to an extraordinary rebuilding job when he faces the Swede here in tomorrow afternoon's final.
The stage could not be more perfectly set. Having lost for the first time in 32 matches at Roland Garros in last year's fourth round, Nadal has the chance to avenge that defeat, to secure his fifth title here and to reclaim the world No 1 ranking he lost to Roger Federer last summer. While Nadal never looked in any danger in yesterday's semi-finals, beating Austria's Jürgen Melzer 6-2, 6-3, 7-6, Soderling had to come from behind to beat Tomas Berdych 6-3, 3-6, 5-7, 6-3, 6-3.
Nadal's defeat to Soderling here was the lowest point of a troubled year for the 24-year-old Spaniard. His suspect knees, which had been giving him increasing trouble, kept him out of Wimbledon and it was not until the current clay-court season that he ended an 11-month spell without a title.
Since then, however, the Majorcan has been unstoppable. Having arrived here as the only man ever to win all three clay-court Masters Series titles in the same season, he has not dropped a set en route to the final.
The only moment when Nadal faltered yesterday was when he was broken to love as he served for the match at 5-4. Melzer led 2-0 in the subsequent tie-break after his opponent made a horrible mess of a routine smash, but Nadal recovered his poise and completed his victory when serving at 7-6 as Melzer put a forehand in the net.
The Austrian, playing in his first Grand Slam semi-final, faced an uphill struggle from the moment he dropped his serve to love in the sixth game. Nadal broke again to take the first set with a big forehand winner and raced through the second in similar fashion. "Playing on this court is always amazing and I'm very happy to be in the final,"Nadal said.
Asked about the prospect of earning revenge against the only man ever to beat him here, Nadal said: "We will see. He's playing really, really well. I'll just go on the court and try my best. He's a very good player and he's had an amazing tournament." Soderling said he hoped he would learn from his only previous appearance in a Grand Slam final, when he lost in straight sets to Federer here last year. "Hopefully I won't be as nervous," he said. "I didn't get off to a great start last year, which was really tough for me, but it's going to be a long match, the best of five sets. You can always work your way into any matches in a Grand Slam."
As for facing Nadal again, he said: "We've played many times. He beat me a lot of times, and I beat him a few times, but of course it's always good to have beaten a player before. I know that I can beat him. I showed it. But, again, every match is a new match, and every match is different."
Earlier in the afternoon Soderling and Berdych had walked into a stadium that was less than a quarter full. Lunch is a serious business in these parts, but the crowd also know their tennis. Many ticket-holders must have suspected that the first semi-final would not be a match for the purists – and they were right. Both men are great ball-strikers, but there is little subtlety about them. Seeing either take on a more rounded opponent can be an intriguing clash of styles, but when they faced each other it was like watching two ponderous heavyweights, their feet glued to the canvas, trading haymakers.
Breaks of serve were always going to be crucial in such a battle of the giants. Berdych, one inch taller at 6ft 5in, was the first to crack, dropping serve on a double fault in the sixth game. Soderling served out for the set, but the Swede failed to build on his advantage. From early in the second set nerves appeared to take over and Soderling grew frustrated by an increasing number of errors.
Berdych made the only break of the second set in the fourth game and secured the first in the third set to lead 2-1. Soderling broke back three games later but hurled his racket in despair when he dropped his serve again at 5-5. Berdych served out for the set with two successive aces. Soderling was looking increasingly disgruntled, but came back to take the fourth set, breaking serve in the sixth game, and in the decider Berdych wilted in the heat.
Soderling broke serve three times and secured victory after three-and-a-half hours when Berdych put a backhand wide. Nadal will surely provide a much tougher test.