Commentary

Nadal's historic run in Paris ends

Originally Published: May 31, 2009
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

PARIS -- Customarily, the loser of a professional tennis match packs up in great haste and stalks off the court as quickly as possible.

On Sunday evening, Robin Soderling of Sweden exited Court Philippe Chatrier first, leaving Rafael Nadal to his usual stage. Nadal, the four-time defending French Open champion, squeezed a few more rackets into his large bag, then a towel and a wrist band, letting the thunderous applause wash over him.

As he walked off, Nadal did his usual clockwise, 360-degree spin, his hand in the air to acknowledge the appreciative crowd. It was a resounding and heartfelt ovation, and it continued as he disappeared into the tunnel at the north end of the stadium.

The King is dead.

Long live the King.

At precisely 5:54 p.m. local time, history was made at Roland Garros. For the first time here, the 22-year-old Spaniard lost a match.

Nadal did seem uncharacteristically laconic at times and displayed negative body language throughout, but just as much, Soderling won it.

[+] EnlargeRafael Nadal
Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty ImagesRafael Nadal's unblemished 31-0 record at Roland Garros came to an inexplicable end versus Robin Soderling.

Playing the match of his 24-year-old life, Soderling prevailed 6-2, 6-7 (2), 6-4, 7-6 (2), which, considering the context, was one of the most staggering upsets in recent Grand Slam history. Nadal had won all 31 of his previous matches here and seemed destined to become the first man or woman to win five consecutive titles.

Coming into this fourth-round match, Nadal had won all 48 of his best-of-five matches on clay.

Afterward, he was still flushed, but composed.

"All of us athletes, we know that when we walk on the court we can either win or lose," Nadal said. "I know it for a fact anything can happen, and I have to accept them both in the same way. "You cannot collapse either because you've won a match or because you've lost it. This is sport, and you can have victories or defeats. No one remembers defeats on the long run. People remember victories."

This one will long stand as an exception to the rule.

"I try to keep telling myself before the match that I have to believe," Soderling said later. "Of course, I told everybody this is the biggest challenge you can have, I think, playing Nadal, the best clay-court player of all times on clay, best of five sets in Roland Garros.

"But still, you know, I have to believe that I have a chance, otherwise there's no meaning going on the court. I could just go home instead. I tried to keep telling myself that, you know, at least I have a small chance."

Mats Wilander, a three-time champion at Roland Garros, analyzed the match for Eurosport.

"All the players are in a state of shock," Wilander said afterward. "At some point, Nadal was going to lose, but nobody expected it to happen today, or maybe even next year. Now there's a tournament to be won by a bunch of players.

"I think they're all having a beer tonight."

Only one month ago, Nadal strafed Soderling 6-1, 6-0 in Rome -- one of the worst losses in the Swede's career. But for 3½ hours at Roland Garros, Soderling consistently out-willed and out-stroked Nadal. And against all odds, he showed more heart when the points mattered most.

So what changed? Perhaps it was Madrid.

The blueprint for the victory was provided by Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer two weeks ago in Spain. Although Djokovic lost, he played an artful, passive-aggressive game that extended Nadal to more than four hours. Federer finished him off in a straight-sets final, but showed a different approach against Nadal than he has taken in the past.

He stepped into the court, making it a smaller playing field. He made a deliberate attempt to keep rallies short, going for shots that were sometimes beyond safe. He took huge cuts with his forehand, running around his backhand whenever feasible. He jumped on anything short and teed off on second serves. He mixed it up with slices and even a few drop shots.

This is precisely what Soderling did. What was so astonishing was that he was able to maintain that unconscious level for four sets.

Last week, Darren Cahill was asked for a game plan to beat Nadal. Cahill, who worked briefly with Federer earlier this year, had three words: High-risk tennis.

"You have to attempt as best as you can, to take Rafa out of his comfort zone," Cahill said. "The best way to do that is to be aggressive, very aggressive."

In breezy conditions, Soderling took some massive cuts, flattened his stroke out and wound up with 59 unforced errors, a high number for a four-set match. But in the end, his risk was rewarded with 61 winners -- 28 more than Nadal.

In the monstrous moments, facing a break point, Soderling won five of six against Nadal, while saving two of four.

"My strategy was to play aggressive," Soderling said. "You can't really try to beat him in running him down, because, for sure, I had to take some chances. I think I did, and, you know, I played extremely well on the important points.

"I played exactly the way I wanted to play for the match."

[+] EnlargeRobin Soderling
Ryan Pierse/Getty ImagesRobin Soderling employed a high-risk game that saw him hit 28 more winners than Rafael Nadal.

When Nadal dropped the first set 6-2, it sent media representatives scrambling to the record book.

The 6-2 loss was a distinct slice of history. It was his first dropped set at Roland Garros since the second set of the 2007 final against Federer, ending a 32-set winning streak. It was only the second set Nadal's lost in a span of 53 going back to the first set of the 2006 final -- also against Federer.

"I never was calm -- that's the truth," Nadal admitted. "The match started off very badly for me. I mean, the second set, I should have won it 6-4. Then there was wind, and that wasn't good.

"Then not being calm enough to face the important points, so I had to fight. But sometimes it's not enough fighting. You have to play a good level of tennis. Sometimes people think I win because I'm physically fit, but, no. When I win, it's because I play well, and that wasn't the case today."

After winning the second-set tiebreaker -- he won the first six points -- many probably assumed Nadal would win the final two sets. But in the seventh game of the third set he was broken after falling awkwardly, landing heavily on his right ankle. Nadal never seemed to find a rhythm.

Nadal missed several forehands early and never contested the fourth-set tiebreaker. Afterward, he declined to cite fatigue as a factor.

The King, it must be said, is still only 22 -- three days from 23rd birthday.

"Unfortunately, it's the first time I'm not going to celebrate my birthday in Roland Garros," Nadal said. "I hope I'll be able to celebrate more here and be back next year and try and win."

This will take some getting used to.

The men's No. 1 and No. 4 seeds have now departed a day apart, leaving Federer, the No. 2 seed, and Andy Murray, the No. 3, a far more open draw than they dared to imagine. Nadal cast Federer -- who he's beaten in the past three finals here -- as the favorite.

Hard to imagine, that Federer now has a sterling chance to win his first French Open and complete his set of Grand Slam trophies.

Soderling, for his part, plays Nikolay Davydenko in a surprise quarterfinal.

In his postmatch news conference, Nadal was asked the obligatory question about his preparation for Wimbledon.

"Right now, my preparation is for the swimming pool of my house," Nadal said, smiling at his own joke. "Yeah, give me three more days to think about preparation for Wimbledon."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Bonnie D. Ford contributed to this story

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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