Nadal battles back from the brink

Spanish tennis star cements his place among the greats.

rafael nadal 311 (photo credit: AP)
rafael nadal 311
(photo credit: AP)
PARIS – If you were to ask Rafael Nadal which of his five Roland Garros titles he cherishes most he would probably struggle for an answer.
The Spaniard would inevitably speak of how special his first triumph, five years ago, was while adding how each title on Court Philippe Chatrier was unique in its own way.
However, you would be lucky to get a straightforward answer to the question.
Nevertheless, there is something extraordinary about Nadal’s fifth Coupe des Mousquetaires, won on Sunday in Paris, and it will go down as one of the most significant landmarks in his career.
The Nadal who won four straight French Open trophies between 2005 and 2008, as well as Grand Slam titles at Wimbledon (2008) and the Australian open (2009), is completely different from the player we saw on court on Sunday.
After Nadal claimed the Australian Open early last year with another classic victory over rival Roger Federer it seemed as if there was nothing that could break his stranglehold on world tennis. He looked almost unbeatable, and at the mere age of 23, seemed set to add many Grand Slam titles to his name.
However, everything began to unravel after last year’s fourth round defeat to Robin Soderling at Roland Garros, with the Spaniard’s intense style of play causing him growing discomfort in his knees from the start of the year and eventually resulting in his absence from Wimbledon in June.
After going almost a full year without winning a title, there were those who already began to question if we had not seen the best of Nadal.
But since the start of the clay court season, the Majorcan has risen like a phoenix from the ashes, culminating in Sunday’s steamrollering of the very same Soderling in the French capital.
Nadal, who is now a perfect 22-0 on clay in 2010, losing just two sets on his way to four consecutive titles, was virtually unplayable on Sunday.
“This is one of the most important victories in my career,” he said with the trophy by his side at the post-match press conference. “It was a difficult year for me the last year. I worked a lot to be here. I was very nervous during all the tournament, because I knew before that I was ready to try to win another time.”
Soderling by no means played poorly on Sunday. He would have very likely beaten almost any other player with his display in the final. But against Nadal he couldn’t even come close to winning a set. The Swede was at his booming best with his ground strokes, but Nadal had answers to all the questions and countered Soderling’s power with sheer ferocity.
Nadal was especially clinical when it mattered most, saving all eight of the break points he faced.
The new world number one may have hit four less winners than Soderling (28 to 32), but had just 16 unforced errors throughout the encounter compared to some 45 by the Swede.
However, it is not these statistics which made Sunday’s success so remarkable. What made Nadal’s fifth Roland Garros title especially noteworthy is the fact that it was achieved after so many considered him to be down and out.
“I went through 11 months without a title, so [I finished] a lot of tournaments going back home without a victory. A lot of moments, difficult moments, because in a few of these tournaments I had to retire with injuries,” he said.
“It was a personal goal to be back at my best. So I did it. 
“And for me, sure, the important thing is Roland Garros. But for me the biggest thing is the personal satisfaction to be here, to be here another time and to be at the top level.”
Nadal was knocked off the perch of the tennis world, but he never stopped working to return to his former glory.
His previous six Grand Slam titles were all incredible in their own way.
However, what makes Sunday’s feat so exceptional is the fact that it came after the toughest year of his career and for that reason it is this victory which cements his place as a truly great champion.