ABU DHABI // "Everybody is talking 'Rafa is back', but Rafa never went anywhere. I have been here all the time." Rafael Nadal was full of candour before last night's Capitala World Tennis Championship final and the Spaniard did not disappoint, overpowering Swede Robin Soderling 7-6 (7-3), 7-5 to claim his first title of the new year.
Soderling, who had defeated world No 1 Roger Federer in the semi-finals at Zayed Sports City International Tennis Complex, held his own for large parts of the thrilling finale, but eventually succumbed to the brute force and guile of the man from Mallorca. Nadal had been beaten by Soderling in their previous two meetings, first at the French Open, where the world No 8 ended the 23-year-old's 31-match winning streak on the Roland Garros clay, and then at the ATP World Tour finals in London last month. Yet despite insisting revenge was not on his mind, the reigning Australian Open champion looked determined to halt a hat-trick of victories for the Scandinavian.
"Robin has unbelievable potential," said the six-time grand slam winner after being presented with the new Arabic-inspired Capitala trophy. "He has improved a lot in the past year. He is one of the most difficult players you can play on the Tour because his serve is incredible and it's very hard to have control of his powerful shots from the baseline. He has a very good forehand and backhand, so it is difficult to stop him."
But stop him, he did. Nadal at times looked formidable, especially while serving, and Soderling struggled with his opponent's dominating deliveries. Nadal reached the final of the annual Abu Dhabi tournament last year where he lost to Briton Andy Murray, but then he saw his season hampered by knee problems and relinquished the world No 1 ranking to Roger Federer. But last night he claimed his performance against the impressive Soderling was a sign that he is finding his top form again and hopes to carry it into the new ATP season, starting at the Qatar Masters in Doha tomorrow.
"The last few months have not been very bad for me, but they have not been very good. I have worked really hard to be in this shape and it's nice to start the season playing two great matches," he said, having previously comfortably beaten compatriot David Ferrer in Friday's semi-final. "[Last night] is one of my most important wins in the last few months and it is my best performance on court since Roland Garros last year. That's very good news for me."
Soderling, understandably, was dejected afterwards, but can take heart from his performances this weekend. Last year, Murray was being touted as a potential major winner and a threat to tennis's top two. Juan Martin del Potro won his maiden grand slam at the US Open and the likes of Nikolay Davydenko and Novak Djokovic continue to impress, albeit irregularly. Nadal knows he is playing against a strong field this year, but refused to admit 2010 will be harder than previous seasons.
"There are a number of new players; young players," said the Spaniard. "But when I started, there was [Jim] Courier playing unbelievable, [Andre] Agassi playing unbelievable, there was Leyton [Hewitt], there was Federer, there was [Andy] Roddick. When another generation comes, it always seems like that's the best but we will only see in a few years [if this is the best]. When I started in my first masters, there was [Marat] Safin, Agassi, Hewitt, Roddick, Federer. It was unbelievable."
Soderling, with a late flight to Doha to catch, rushed through his post-match press conference, but insisted that while disappointed to lose, he was leaving Abu Dhabi with fond memories. "I got to play three great matches with three great players, including a two-hour match with the second best player in the world," said the 25-year-old. "But I am not focusing too much on the season ahead. I think I played well last year; this year I just want to do better."