PARIS — Scurrying along the baseline as only he can, sliding through the red clay he rules, Rafael Nadal stretched to somehow dig the ball out of a corner and fling it back over the net — once, twice, three times — during a 14-stroke exchange that ended when Robin Soderling sailed a shot long.
The French Open final was all of seven points old, and the message was unmistakable: Nadal's knees are fine now, which means he is an entirely different player from the one Soderling stunned at Roland Garros in 2009. That was the first loss of Nadal's career at this tournament, and it remains the only one.
His body sound, his mind at ease, Nadal played his unique brand of relentless, perpetual-motion tennis to handily beat the No. 5-seeded Soderling of Sweden 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 Sunday. Nadal won his fifth French Open championship, his seventh Grand Slam title overall, and earned a return to No. 1.
"I lost last year because I was not well-prepared; and I had very low morale last year, as well," said Nadal, who will supplant Roger Federer atop the rankings today.
"But this time, I'm back," said Nadal, who covered his face with a red towel and sobbed at match's end. "I'm back — and I win."
Yes, Nadal most definitely is back, and he is as good as — or perhaps even better than — ever.
"He has more or less one game," Soderling said, "but he does it so well."
Nadal is 38-1 over his career at Roland Garros and, three days after his 24th birthday, stands just one French Open title shy of Bjorn Borg's record of six. For the second time in three years, Nadal won the tournament without losing a set.
Nadal's uncle, Toni, who has coached the Spaniard since he was 4, called Sunday's performance "one of the best matches I've ever seen Rafael play."
Put simply, Nadal was far superior in every aspect, from start to finish, in improving to 38-4 with four titles this season, both tour bests.
He saved all eight break points he faced. He returned well, too, against a guy who tops 140 mph, managing to hit the same number of aces Sunday, seven apiece, even though Soderling had totaled 75, and Nadal only 12, through the semifinals. He made only 16 unforced errors, 29 fewer than Soderling.
Most significantly, he never allowed his big-swinging foe to dictate points the way Soderling did during his pair of career-defining upsets — against Nadal in last year's fourth round, and against defending champion and top-seeded Federer in this year's quarterfinals.
Part of that was a result of going after Soderling's weaker backhand side at the outset of points. Mainly, though, it was thanks to Nadal's sublime scrambling.