PARIS --- On the way to each of his four French Open championships, Rafael Nadal needed to beat Roger Federer -- and did. In 2005, it was in the semifinals. In 2006, 2007 and 2008, it was in the final.
There was no Nadal-Federer encounter at Roland Garros last year, because Nadal's 31-match winning streak in his favorite tournament ended with a stunning fourth-round loss to Robin Soderling.
And Nadal-Federer did not appear on the schedule at this year's French Open, either, because Federer's title reign ended with a quarterfinal loss to -- yes, that's right -- Soderling. So instead, if Nadal is going to join Bjorn Borg as the only men to hoist the clay-court Grand Slam tournament's trophy at least five times, it will have to be after a victory over Soderling in today's final.
"Obviously playing Roger Federer was something special, because we played many finals together." said Nadal, who found Federer across the net in all but one of his previous eight career major finals. "But this time, this year, we can feel it's going to be slightly different."
If not for one particular match in the past between Nadal and Soderling, the No. 2-seeded Spaniard would be considered an overwhelming favorite against the No. 5-seeded Swede.
Consider: Nadal owns six Grand Slam titles; Soderling none.
Nadal is 202-16 over his career on clay, a .927 winning percentage; Soderling is 67-45, a .598 winning percentage. Nadal is 37-1 in the French Open; Soderling is 15-6 -- and was only 3-5 before 2009.
But Soderling's surprising trip to his first runner-up finish at a major a year ago included that monumental fourth-round victory, accounting for the one blemish on Nadal's otherwise perfect Roland Garros record.
That one result changes the whole complexion of today's meeting, whether Nadal is willing to say so or not.
Soderling, for one, is willing.
"It's always good to have beaten a player before," he said. "I know that I can beat him. I showed it."