The King reclaims his crown
PARIS -- Five years ago, a swashbuckling, 19-year-old Majorcan strode into Roland Garros.
He wore his dark hair long, almost to his shoulders; his white capri pants were midcalf; and a sleeveless green shirt showcased his bulging biceps. His raw, willful game found a home on the red clay. Two weeks and seven victims later, he owned the place.
Rafael Nadal is 24 now, a pirate no more. The shorts are shorter, and so is the hair. His shirt has sleeves, and his muscles exhibit less mass but far more definition. His game is bigger and infused with offense -- even when defense seems like the only option.
Nadal won four consecutive French Open titles, but last year a scowling Swede named Robin Soderling ended a run of 31 straight victories in the fourth round. One year later, on an overcast Sunday, the king reclaimed his crown with a vengeance.
Playing the kind of breathtaking, ethereal clay-court tennis of which he alone is capable, Nadal wrecked Soderling on Court Philippe Chatrier, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4.
Later, after two separate sprawled-in-the-dirt celebrations, Nadal sat alone in his changeover chair, his face buried in a towel, and sobbed. It was precisely then when you could see what this tournament means to him. Nadal has now won 38 of 39 matches at Roland Garros.
"Very, very important for me," Nadal said. "One of the most important victories in my career I think. It was a difficult year for me last year. It was difficult to accept the injuries and everything."
What was he thinking about when he hid his face from 15,000 spectators?
"I don't know," Nadal said. "I was there crying. It was a real emotional moment for me. The moment, after a lot of nerves, a lot of pressure. A difficult year after you win the title, you lose your tension."
Three-time French Open champion Mats Wilander was impressed. "He's a much, much more complete player than he used to be," Wilander said. "He's playing faster, hitting the ball with lower trajectory and deeper, too. He's serving better, too, moving the ball around."
It was the fifth title for Nadal at Roland Garros, achieved in only six years. Only Bjorn Borg, with six French Open championships, has won more. The silver-haired Swede turned 54 on Sunday; you have to wonder whether this time next year, he'll have company in the record book here.
More statistical housekeeping: Nadal concluded the clay season with 22 consecutive victories, winning 51 of 53 sets -- including all 21 sets at Roland Garros. Nadal also had a clean run in 2008, something only two other men achieved here, Borg (twice) and Ilie Nastase.
Although Nadal played cleanly, Soderling didn't play at his best. "I didn't play as good this year as I did against him last year," Soderling said afterward. "I didn't serve as well. I wasn't hitting the ball as clean.
"It was a tough today. I didn't really get into the match. He was playing extremely well. He didn't miss much, but I had to really fight today."
Nadal meandered through the field here, never really getting stressed until he was forced into two tiebreakers by Nicolas Almagro in the quarterfinals. Perhaps inspired by the magnitude of the moment, Nadal played his best match of the fortnight.
In the second set, it was like watching a collection of Nadal's greatest hits: the heavy, hooked forehand down the line that starts over the doubles alley and breaks sharply down and over for a winner, the artfully carved drop shot that has so much rotation it barely bounces, the cross-court backhand from well behind the baseline that barely clears the net and exits the court at an impossibly acute angle.
The match was decided in a few quietly desperate points of the second set. Serving at 0-1, Nadal saved four break points and then crushed Soderling with some searing stuff. In the fifth game, Soderling hit what looked like a winning forehand, but Nadal not only ran it down but also flicked a backhand stab that traveled cross-court past a baffled Soderling.
Nadal was asked about his ability to summon supreme concentration in break-point situations. He referenced the weekly ATP World Tour statistics package.
"I am No. 1 on break points saved," he said, laughing. "Specialist."
Soderling, who knocked Roger Federer out of the tournament in the quarterfinals to become the first man to beat defending champions in back-to-back years, didn't play all that badly.
Forced to be aggressive because of Nadal's defense, Soderling wound up with 13 more unforced errors (45) than winners. Nadal had a positive net of 12, equaled Soderling's seven aces and did not have his serve broken once.
This was Rafa's seventh Grand Slam singles title, vaulting him past Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg and into a tie with John McEnroe and Wilander. He now trails the remarkable trio of Andre Agassi, Ivan Lendl and Jimmy Connors by only one.
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Nadal, who first attained the No. 1 ranking two years ago when he won the French Open and Wimbledon back to back, returns to the commanding position he occupied for 46 consecutive weeks.
It's not too early to wonder whether Rafa can win that rare double again this year.
"This is the best I've seen him play," Wilander said. "He'll be very tough to beat at Wimbledon as well."
Nadal said he was nervous before the match. He also admitted he had doubts last year about whether would ever return to the form of a Grand Slam champion.
"Sure," he said. "Everybody have doubts. I am not an exception."
Nadal was asked which was more important, the No. 1 ranking or another title at Roland Garros.
"I was crying after the match," he said. "The last thing I was thinking was the No. 1. I was thinking of the title and all the hard work."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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