As the minutes passed, the audience in the tribunes of Philippe Chatrier court grew and grew until there was not a spare seat in the house. Murmurs circulated around the tennis complex. Crowds outside the stadium stopped, all fixated by the events on the big screens.
The tension mounted; could this really be the day? Is this really happening?
17:53 CET: Rafael Nadal is defeated by Robin Soderling, 6-2, 6-7, 6-4, 7-6, in the fourth round of the French Open.
It is being called one of the greatest upsets in Grand Slam history; arguably the greatest sporting upset of the decade.
The tennis world momentarily stopped. The clay court world as one knew it ended.
Nadal has literally dominated the clay courts of Roland Garros for 4 consecutive years. Since his debut in the first round in 2005 when he was a mere 18 years old, he has never lost in his clay kingdom. Ever.
A 31-0 match winning streak. Before this match, he dropped only seven sets in total at the French, the last time being in the 2007 final against Federer where Nadal won in four.
This match against Soderling was only the first time that Nadal has lost 2 sets at the French Open, let alone 3. A record-breaking match in all respects.
Indeed he does not just have dominance at Roland Garros. Including this defeat, Nadal has lost 4 times on clay in the past 4 years. He has won 4 consecutive French Open titles, 5 consecutive Monte Carlo titles and 4 Rome titles.
Many said that he couldn’t be beaten, that he could only get better.
Moreover, there were many records riding on this tournament for Nadal. A chance to equal Borg’s 5 consecutive Roland Garros titles; a chance to surpass Guillermo Vilas’ 41 consecutive set streak; all quashed as a result of the scintillating Swede and his blitzing groundstrokes.
Soderling is currently ranked 25 in the world. He is more favoured to indoor events due to his thunderous serve; he is also known for his cool off-court manner and on-court mental fragility.
Certainly, a player of which Nadal should be no more afraid than the rest of his opponents.
Add to this mixture the previous animosity and results between the two opponents, however, and you have an extremely volatile concoction, ready to explode at the slightest hint of ammunition.
The two played at Wimbledon in 2007, in a match which lasted five days in total because of consistent rain delays. At one point, apparently annoyed by Nadal’s time-wasting between points, Soderling started to imitate the Spaniard, picking at his pants, touching his socks, you know the sort of thing.
Since then, Nadal has purposefully dominated all their encounters, the latest in Rome culminating in the tellingly one-sided result of 6-0, 6-1 to Nadal.
In this match, however, Nadal was not at his lethal best – but it was not a match thrown away by an ill-prepared champion, nor by a champion filled with hubris or contemptuousness for his opponent.
Soderling was a revelation, deploying an apposite power game that left the great man scrambling, gasping, sighing, and finally bowing his head in defeat.
Aces, net play, screaming forehand winners both down the line and cross-court; a high ratio winner to unforced error count underlined the Swede’s successful and sedulous attacking game.
A typical first-set-only attack was expected after the 34 minute, 6-2 beating, a set resembling that of many lower ranked players determined to make an impression on their rivals before fading out.
Many high ranked seeds in the draw have suffered first-set losses before dominating their opponents – but this was a sustained, pumped-up and vigorous attack on the strongest of opponents.
Nadal would win in 5 sets, surely? There is no way he could loose; he could come back from anything; he is one of the strongest players mentally on the tour. Yet… in a tantalizing final set tiebreak, the Swede reigned supreme.
The most poignant element: Nadal expected a pen with which to sign the camera as he walked off the court, as is tradition for the winners at the end of each match. Instinctively, he searched for one as he left; he didn’t know how it felt to loose on Court Philippe Chatrier.
A result of this prodigious magnitude means that countless more hypotheses and predictions about the future of this year’s French Open—and about next year’s clay court season—will be posed. For now, let us be content with the sublime performance that has just been witnessed.
A match for the history books. That is becoming quite a theme with Nadal.
(Published on Bleacher Report; May 31st 2009)
Tags: nadal, roland garros, tennis