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When Nadal strode onto Court Philippe Chatrier for his initial pre-Roland Garros practice session, his first sight of the 2010 tournament was the same as his last sight of the 2009 tournament:  the gangly, grimacing scorpion from Sweden.  For better or for worse, Soderling also will provide the final image of the Spaniard’s tournament this year on Sunday, having advanced to the final along a trajectory eerily similar to his route in 2009.  The Greatest Upset Ever remains permanently branded on the brains of even casual spectators, but can Nordic lightning strike twice?  Although the Swede followed up his milestone victory with another win over a dispirited Rafa at the year-end-championships, the four-time French Open titlist prevailed resoundingly when they met in Rome just weeks before Roland Garros.  Including an infamously ill-tempered five-set clash at 2007 Wimbledon, their head-to-head prior to TGUE (see above) bears little significance, for Soderling built upon that single moment to reinvent his career as a leading contender at the most significant events. 

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Carrying a 21-match clay winning streak into Sunday’s final, Nadal has lost just two of 50 sets played on his beloved red dirt this year, one to the Soderling-esque Gulbis in Rome and the other to Almagro in Madrid.  More intelligent with his schedule, he chose to skip the 500-level event in Barcelona and was rewarded with his first career sweep of the clay Masters 1000 events.  On the other hand, one should note that he recorded just two top-10 wins during that stretch, one of which came against the self-admittedly intimidated Verdasco in Monte Carlo.  Here, Nadal has reached the final without defeating a single top-20 player, and the accomplishment of reaching this stage without dropping a set bears a slight asterisk when one hasn’t defeated anyone more imposing than Almagro or Melzer.  The Spaniard will enter the match much fresher than Soderling, though, who has lost four sets in the tournament and was forced to a fifth set by Berdych in the semis.  After an appearance in the Barcelona final, where he succumbed to an inspired Verdasco in three sets, the Swede virtually disappeared with early losses to Wawrinka and Almagro in Rome and Madrid, respectively.  (A nagging knee injury prevented him from entering Monte Carlo.)  As Roland Garros approached, therefore, one expected him to fall well short of his finals appearance in 2009, yet Soderling has habitually risen to the occasion on the grandest stages and did so once again.  Rallying from a one-set deficit against Federer in the quarters, he slowly wore down the top seed physically and mentally with thunderous groundstrokes as well as fearless confidence.  Once again forced to rally in the semifinals, Soderling shrugged off strings of unforced errors to display his best tennis at the most important moments, a skill that identifies the greatest competitors in this sport.

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In order to duplicate his 2009 victory, the Swede must preserve that deep-rooted confidence in his ability to win despite momentary lapses.  As he proved against Berdych, one can survive quantities of miscues (63, to be precise) if one delivers timely quantities of winners (62, to be precise).  His symmetrical game allows him to punish groundstrokes on both sides and drive his opponents far behind the baseline, after which he can cruise into the forecourt for comfortable put-aways.  Despite Nadal’s outstanding passing shots, Soderling should continue to move forwards and keep the Spaniard under pressure while preparing himself for eye-popping retrievals that will force him to hit an extra ball or two; against Federer, he performed this strategy to near-perfection.  Last year, he hammered away at Nadal’s forehand corner with brilliant results, but the four-time champion now moves more smoothly in that direction than he did a year ago.  Now, he’s slightly slower towards his backhand side than he formerly was, so Soderling should seek to expose that wing in order to catch him off balance.  Casting caution to the wind concerning his serve, the fifth seed should take risks on his second delivery without fear of double faults.  Points that start in neutral mode will favor Nadal, who possesses distinct advantages in movement and fitness, so Soderling needs to establish his authority immediately and dictate play from the middle of the court.  Targeting his shots more for the baseline than the sidelines, he should attempt to force Nadal onto his back foot rather than permitting him to create angles.  Conceding a dismal first set to Federer in last year’s final, the Swede started impressively against Nadal in TGUE and will find his chances of a repeat greatly amplified if he can jump on the Spaniard immediately again.  Probably a little nervous at the outset of this match, Rafa might well falter after a dose of déjà vu, whereas a prosaic opening for Soderling will infuse his opponent with the confidence that he requires to reverse last year’s result.

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One of the most important factors in the final, Nadal’s nerves have undermined him more than once already in this tournament when he confronted far less intimidating foes.  Failing to serve out matches against Bellucci and Melzer, the Spaniard survived without undue ado because those opponents lacked the ability to capitalize on the temporary momentum shift.  Soderling does not lack that ability, which means that Nadal must collect himself without delay following any wobbly moments before the momentum player opposite him turns a trickle into a waterfall.  Lanky and not especially fleet of foot, the Swede requires time to set up his shots and can spray his groundstrokes wildly when hitting off balance; therefore, Rafa should exploit his remarkable racket head-speed to open up angles and keep his adversary moving.  Wide serving into the deuce and especially the ad court would suit Nadal’s purposes quite effectively, dragging the Swede into the doubles alley rather than pulling him into the center of the court.  In the deuce court, though, that strategy comprises a calculated risk, for Soderling loves to reach out with his forehand and pulverize a cross-court return.  Consequently, Nadal should occasionally serve towards Soderling’s backhand in the deuce court in order to prevent his opponent from settling into a returning rhythm.  On Soderling’s serve, he should attempt to do more than just block the ball back into play.  Against Stosur’s elephantine delivery, Schiavone enjoyed considerable success by taking the return early, which allowed her to catch the Australian flat-footed early in the rally.  While this tactic would concede a few extra cheap points to the Swede, Nadal could score a valuable psychological triumph by preventing him from constantly dictating in his service games as he is accustomed.  The mental component will prove vital on both sides of the net, so Rafa needs to chip away at the confidence with which Soderling will swagger onto Chatrier.

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Shot-by-shot breakdown:

Serve:  Soderling

Return:  Nadal

Forehand:  Nadal

Backhand:  Soderling

Volleys:  Nadal

Movement:  Nadal

Mental:  Soderling

More than just the puncher vs. counter-puncher dynamic, this match offers a fascinating clash in personalities between the marvelously cold-blooded Robin and the charmingly human Rafa.  Intense and fraught with implications for both participants, their confrontation isn’t the same as the flickering embers of Nadal-Federer—it’s betterer.  Look for the birthday boy to have his cake (a fifth French Open) and eat it too (regain the #1 ranking) after four gritty, gripping sets.

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***

Whether you gravitate towards good guys or bad guys, good girls or bad girls, tennis offers a fascinating cast of characters to contemplate.  If the thrillingly evil Swede ever fancies a bit of mixed doubles, we have a thrillingly evil partner for him… 😉

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