Impatience with a purpose
PARIS -- After he first served for the match -- and managed to fail -- Rafael Nadal almost seemed amused.
He smiled at his box, shook his head in wonderment and walked slowly to the baseline to receive Jurgen Melzer's serve. Even four-time French Open champions can't make every shot, win every game.
Some minutes later, order returned and Nadal converted his third match point early Friday evening when Melzer's forehand fell into the net. Although it's been a little squirrelly on the women's side -- neither Francesca Schiavone nor Sam Stosur has ever played in a major final, much less won one -- the men's draw has played out quite nicely.
The next best thing after a Nadal-Federer final? The one that will be played Sunday.
Nadal has won 37 of 38 matches here at Roland Garros, and now he has the delicious opportunity to defeat the man responsible for that sole blight on his record.
Robin Soderling weathered a 3-hour, 27-minute match with Tomas Berdych 6-3, 3-6, 5-7, 6-3, 6-3 to reach his second consecutive French Open final. It was Soderling who stunned Nadal in the fourth round a year ago before eventually losing to Roger Federer.
Nadal booked his spot in the final by beating Melzer 6-2, 6-3, 7-6 (6) for his 21st straight win on clay. Afterward, when on-court announcer Cedric Pioline asked Nadal whether he was plotting revenge, the Spaniard declined to go there.
"I would not say that," Nadal said. "He's playing really, really well. [I will] just go on court and do my best. We will see what happens on Sunday.
"He's a very, very dangerous player. A different kind of game. The serve, very flat shots, very impressive."
Meanwhile, Soderling and Berdych were in a dead heat 46 games into the match when the Swede finally distanced himself. He broke Berdych, who was serving at 3-all in the fifth set, at love. A forehand winner, a superb running backhand pass by Soderling, punctuated by a frozen stiff backhand into the net by Berdych, gave Soderling the cushion he needed.
Another languid backhand by Berdych sent Soderling into the final.
"He's the only one who beat him here," Berdych said of Soderling and Nadal, "so I think he's got really big chance."
Said Soderling, "He beat me a lot of times, and I beat him a few times. So it was not the last match. We played one or two times after that.
"But, of course, it's always good to have beaten a player before. I know that I can beat him. I showed it."
The benchmark for Nadal dominance in Paris is 2008. He won his fourth consecutive French Open without dropping a set -- for the first time -- and lost only 41 games in seven matches.
Through six matches, Nadal hasn't been quite as clean this time around, losing 61 games, but tennis aficionados say this can be explained by a few tweaks Rafa has made in his game since losing to Soderling here a year ago.
"After a tough year, he's got that spark back," said ESPN analyst Darren Cahill, who coached Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt. "He's got a better schedule, and he looks fresh. After the loss last year, the expectations are lower and he's playing a lot freer."
Technically, Cahill said, one of the ATP World Tour's most deliberate players is playing closer to the baseline and trying to finish points more quickly. The 19-year-old kid who played eight feet behind the baseline and was content to rally for days has given way to an older, wiser veteran who is trying to reduce his exposure on the court.
"His ball's a little flatter; the ball is jumping," Cahill said. "The few players who can occasionally take the ball early on him, they're seeing fewer opportunities. I think a lot of it is the new strings."
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"It helps me hit deeper with spin," Nadal says in a Babolat commercial. "I have more power."
After his quarterfinal victory over Nicolas Almagro, Nadal added, "I think it's easier to feel the ball. Seems like the ball stays more time on the racket, so is easier to have the control."
Mats Wilander, who won the French Open three times, sees more mistakes -- but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
"In '05 and '06, he never missed," said Wilander, an analyst for Eurosport. "He was throwing a lot of loopy balls, but now he's missing long more than usual. He's finishing the points quicker, and I think he knows it's better for his body."
When Nadal skipped his favorite tournament back in April (Barcelona, where he was a five-time champion), it confirmed that he was serious about reducing his schedule and, with it, the wear and tear on his 24-year-old body.
"Because he has such a heavy topspin, Rafa can be more aggressive and the ball stays in the court," said U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe. "Now, at the end of a match, like [the fourth round, against Thomaz Bellucci], he goes for it a little bit more. He's finally learned that it makes no sense to wear yourself out."
McEnroe said Nadal's evolution is a natural one.
"Usually, when great players try to improve their game on other surfaces, they get worse on clay," McEnroe said. "I would point to [Ivan] Lendl, Wilander, [Jim] Courier and Guga Kuerten, to an extent. They all tried to play bigger, serve bigger, finish points more quickly. Inevitably, they lose patience on clay. You can't help it."
But even an impatient Rafa seems to be better than anyone else at Roland Garros.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Bonnie D. Ford also contributed to this story.
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