Soderling relishes role as the spoiler

PARIS -- Rafael Nadal has bulldozed his way through the clay season so completely, utterly and comprehensively, there was just one opponent who could give the French Open final any intrigue.

Not Roger Federer. Robin Soderling.

Soderling has become the unlikely bogeyman of this tournament, reaching the final two years in a row, both times defeating the reigning world No. 1 and defending champion on his way. He and Nadal will face off for the title Sunday, as the 24-year-old Nadal goes for his fifth French crown to complete an unprecedented sweep of the top clay events and become the world No. 1 again. The 25-year-old Soderling, meanwhile, will be gunning for his first major title.

A Federer-Nadal final would have had its own cachet, of course. Another installment of the legendary rivalry, with Federer cast in the unusual role of defending champion here after taking the title when Nadal lost early last year. But the ending of that story tends to be rather predictable -- the Swiss world No. 1 has lost all their three French Open finals and fell to Nadal again in Madrid two weeks ago, dropping to 2-10 in their head-to-head confrontations on clay.

It was Soderling who provided the twist in the tale last year, bringing down Nadal at the French Open for the first time by winning their fourth-round match in four shocking sets.

Nadal was not at his best that day. His wheels were a little slower and his shots a little shorter because of aching knees and a heart heavy over his parents' divorce. But Soderling also produced a fearless, fearsome performance, whaling his forehand in ways never previously whaled on clay against Nadal's viciously topspun balls.

The Spaniard, usually courteous to a fault, was reluctant to give his opponent much credit afterward, blaming his own poor performance.

"I didn't play great. I didn't play with calm at no one time during all the match," he said. "That makes him easy to play at this level during all the match, no? So was my fault, and more than -- well, sure, he did well. He did very well, but I think I didn't play my best tennis."

Losing hurt, but losing to Soderling just increased the sting. Two years ago, the two played a roller coaster five-set match between raindrops at Wimbledon. Despite some fine play, it is remembered more for one ugly moment.

Frustrated by Nadal's slow pace of play, Soderling imitated Nadal's habit of picking at the back of his shorts before serving. The crassness of the gesture largely overshadowed any validity in Soderling's sentiment. Nadal, embarrassed and angry, won the match and muttered some dark words about Soderling afterward.

He also criticized the Swede's manner off the court.

"I have said hello to him seven times to his face, and he has never said hello to me," Nadal said that day. "I thought it was me, but around the locker room almost nobody had anything good to say about him."

It makes for a spicy backdrop to Sunday's final, though Nadal is playing down any ill feelings from the past. Soderling now returns greetings from his fellow pros.

"At the same time, he improves his level of tennis. He improve his level of kind of person, no?" Nadal said after his semifinal victory over Jurgen Melzer. "I think he improve his personality over the last year. … He say more times hello."

The room chuckled. "I'm speaking serious," Nadal insisted, producing even more laughter.

On court, it will be serious indeed. Nadal said he "never believes in revenges," but the Spaniard will be aware of the symbolism of recapturing his French Open crown by defeating the player who took it away last year.

This year, Nadal has been unstoppable on his beloved dirt, winning at Monte Carlo, Rome and Madrid to complete an unprecedented sweep of the clay Masters 1000 events before reaching the final in Paris. In those 21 match victories, he has dropped only two sets.

With his knees feeling "perfect," Nadal will be the favorite against Soderling on Sunday, particularly given the forecast -- warm, sunny conditions are expected, which will give Nadal's shots a little extra kick off the court and Soderling a little less time to tee off. Nadal's forehand, in particular, has been monstrous during the second week.

But the Spaniard did have a small lapse toward the end of his semifinal against Melzer, which if repeated could be costly against Soderling. Allowed to go on the offensive, Soderling can generate tremendous pace and begin to dominate the rallies, as he did in blowing Federer off the court toward the end of their quarterfinal encounter.

The Swede said the key to his rise into the top 10 has been learning to win even when he is not playing his best. Against Nadal, however, playing his best will be key. He was patchy during his win over Tomas Berdych in five sets in the semifinals. Soderling said he hopes that, unlike last year, he will rise to the occasion during the final.

"I didn't get off to a great start last year, which was really tough for me," he said of his match against Federer in last year's final. "But, you know, it's gonna be a long match. It's best of five sets. I'm playing really good tennis right now, and I will enjoy it for sure."

Nadal and Soderling have met once since their encounter in Paris last year, with Soderling again winning in his favored indoor conditions during the ATP World Tour finals in London last November. The two had met twice on clay before Soderling's famous victory, with Nadal easily winning both those early encounters. Overall, Nadal leads the head-to-head 3-2.

One question remains: Whom will the crowd support? For all of Nadal's success here and his normal ability to win over crowds with boyish charm and dogged competitiveness, he has not become an unwavering favorite with the fickle French spectators the way the more classical, French-speaking Federer has.

During last year's match against Soderling, the stadium was on the Swede's side until the end, even deriding Nadal at times. Nadal has reproached the crowd just briefly and has gone out of his way to thank the spectators during courtside interviews this year. But his coach and uncle, Toni Nadal, continues to criticize their behavior that day. With their beloved Federer having finally won the title, perhaps the Spaniard can count on a more generous reception from now on.

Soderling has also felt the derision of the crowds, getting roundly booed whenever he questioned a call during the quarterfinal against Federer. Still, he has earned the respect of the French public with his performances during the past two years and will have his supporters during the final.

After their semifinal victories, both players received standing ovations. Whether Sunday's match goes to Nadal or his slayer, the winner of the final will surely deserve another.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.