Nadal and Robin Soderling won semi-finals yesterday to set up a tantalising rematch. Soderling pulled off a stunner when they met in the fourth round last year, and the upset remains Nadal's lone loss in 38 French Open matches.
Soderling, runner-up to Roger Federer in 2009, returned to the final by sweeping the last four games to overtake No15-seeded Tomas Berdych 6-3, 3-6, 5-7, 6-3, 6-3. Nadal then beat No22 Jurgen Melzer 6-2, 6-3, 7-6 (6).
Soderling has a knack for upsets in Paris – he beat Federer in the quarter-finals this week – and he'll be an underdog again tomorrow.
The second-seeded Nadal has won all 18 sets in this year's tournament, and he's 21-0 on clay in 2010. He seeks to become the second man to win at least five French Open titles. Bjorn Borg won six.
Nadal is bidding for his seventh Grand Slam title. If he wins, he'll reclaim the No1 ranking from Federer next week.
But Soderling's big serve and forehand make him dangerous, as he showed against Berdych. Temperatures in the mid-20s Celsius made for fast court conditions, and the first men's semi-final quickly developed into a slugfest between two of the hardest hitters in tennis.
Most points were short, and rallies were usually restricted to big swings from the backcourt, with few slices, drop shots, lobs or volleys. The fifth-seeded Soderling hit 18 aces, 62 winners and 63 unforced errors. Berdych hit 21 aces, 42 winners and 41 unforced errors.
"It was really tough to play my game," Soderling said, "because he was hitting so hard."
Soderling's only other Grand Slam final was at Roland Garros last year.
"I was only thinking about getting through the first round. Now two weeks later, I'm in the final again," Soderling told the crowd after his win. "It's better than the best dream."
In the end, five sets of swinging from the heels came down to the last three games. Serving at 3-all in the final set, Berdych fell behind love-30 and tried a rare drop shot, but Soderling dashed forward and scooped out a backhand winner. Two points later, Berdych dumped a backhand in the net to lose serve.
Soderling rallied from love-30 to hold for 5-3. Then, on the second point of the next game, he dashed from one sideline to the other to whack his running forehand past Berdych.
"Greatest shot of the match," said fellow Swede and three-time French Open champion Mats Wilander.
Match point came moments later, and when Berdych pushed a weary backhand wide, Soderling covered his face with his hands as his accomplishment sunk in. It was only the fifth five-set win in the Swede's career.
The first service break of the match came in the fourth game, when Berdych clipped the net with a second serve. He soon had lost a set for the first time in the tournament.
But Soderling wobbled, missing with his forehand and losing serve twice in the third set. The second break made it 6-5, and the usually impassive Swede slammed his racket to the court. In the next game Berdych served out the set with four aces, the last at 139 mph.
It was Soderling's turn to rally. He managed the lone break in the fourth set and evened the match after nearly three hours in the sun. Berdych faded at the finish but found consolation in reaching his first Grand Slam semifinal.
Despite his disappointment, Berdych was proud of his greatest ever showing at a major tournament. "It was a great two weeks for me," the big Czech said. "Every round I won here, it's a great moment."
Like Berdych, Melzer was a first-time Grand Slam semi-finalist, and the Austrian found himself overmatched from the baseline. His double-fault gave Nadal the first service break at love in the sixth game, and the Spaniard seized control.
There were few long rallies, and Nadal won almost all of them, forcing Melzer to play high-risk tennis.
As he looked ahead to the final, world No2 Nadal insisted he didn't consider his meeting with Soderling as a grudge match, because the Swede had become a better person in the past year.
And he also maintained his feud with the 25-year-old at Wimbledon three years ago was a thing of the past.
Nadal had been upset by his opponent's conduct during their third-round match at SW19 in 2007, which saw Soderling complain about the time the Spaniard was taking between points as well as mocking his habit of picking at his shorts.
But Nadal, who turned 24 yesterday, said of the Swede:
"I think he improved his personality in the last year.
"I never believe in revenge.
"If I lose, I lose, and congratulate Robin because he did better than me. For me, revenge doesn't exist in any match, and especially when we talk about the final of Roland Garros."