PARIS – Scores of anxious men charged at Rafael Nadal before Sweden’s Robin Soderling at the French Open, but none of them had the willpower to suffocate the Spaniard.
Not even the great Roger Federer could face down the Mallorcan Mauler on his favored clay, in his cherished Philippe Chatrier stadium, which Nadal considered his big casa.
But one powerful and headstrong man believed and finally pulled off arguably the most shocking upset of the Open Era at Roland Garros, when Soderling stunned four-time French Open champion Nadal 6-2, 6-7(2), 6-4, 7-6(2) in the fourth round, ending the Spaniard’s perfect record at the tournament.
As Swedish Davis Cup captain Mats Wilander said, it took a guy with no fear, with a huge game and a willingness to play on his terms without being distracted by Nadal’s never-ending on-court rituals or his fierce reputation to stop his 31-match winning streak at Roland Garros.
A borderline journeyman (he held an 18-21 Grand Slam record going into the match), the now-revived Soderling brought Rafael Nadal back to earth.
“Robin’s not afraid of anyone,” Wilander said. “He works as hard as well as anyone these days and he thinks he can beat everyone on any surface. Finally, it’s really nice to see someone stand up to Nadal mentally and not be bothered by anything and let Nadal take his time and not be worried about it and really be in Rafa’s face more than the other guys are doing.”
The 24th-seeded Soderling accomplished what so many coaches have been telling their players for the past four years as he went straight at Nadal, keeping points short by serving huge, flattening out his groundstrokes, murdering short balls and closing points at the net.
Nadal’s behind-the-baseline heroics were muted, and even when he tried to look tough, he played passively. “Rafa wins most matches in the locker room,” Wilander said. “He’s the one controlling the speed of the match mentally and no one stands up to him and shows him that ‘I know you are better than me, but I’m going to play the way I want to until the cows come home.’”
Nadal simply chalked up his defeat to a bad day and without question, it was the worst match he’s contested in Paris. While the 24-year-old Soderling is loaded with talent and has the ability to become a top-flight player, Nadal played a negative, uninspired contest, showing almost none of his legendary foot speed, his eye-popping passing game or his dogged defense.
Any time he was asked to make a push, he allowed Soderling to shove him over, including in the fourth-set tiebreaker when it was thought that he would begin to launch body blows, and he allowed Soderling to sting him with a series of sharp flurries.
“Rafa was too passive in his game the whole tournament,” said his uncle and coach, Toni Nadal. “He was nervous and hit the ball very bad. He couldn’t move well. Everything was wrong. He wasn’t calm enough to be able to bring out his whole game. He was never calm enough to confront the situations he needed to face.”
A large amount of credit must go to Soderling, who kept taking risks and kept launching big blows at the lines or corners. A tall man who isn’t particularly bothered by Nadal’s heavy topspin, Soderling played first-strike tennis at its finest.
“I try to keep telling myself before the match that I have to believe,” said Soderling, who launched 61 winners to only 33 from Nadal. “Of course, I told everybody this is the biggest challenge you can have, playing Nadal, the best clay-court player of all time on clay, best-of-five sets in Roland Garros.
“But still, 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 at least I have a small chance. This is the biggest moment of my career so far. I couldn’t even dream of this before the match, so I will remember this match for the rest of my life.”
Soderling is not everyone’s favorite player in the locker room. Two years ago at Wimbledon, he imitated Nadal during a rain-delayed epic five-set loss to the Spaniard, angering the usually easy-going Nadal.
But as Wilander said, it took a man like Soderling – whom Nadal had crushed in Rome earlier this month – to take down the great Spaniard.
“Robin just doesn’t give a s—- and that’s a throwback to the past,” Wilander said. “It’s partly mental and it’s coming for a long time because he’s had the potential. He’s a different guy.”
Perhaps Nadal’s attempt to break his and Bjorn Borg’s record of four straight French titles proved to be too much for him, although he denies both a love of records and their effect on his psyche. Perhaps he played too much clay-court tennis coming into the tournament; since April, he had won three crowns and reached a fourth final on the surface. Or perhaps it was just inevitable that he would lose someday, just like every great champion before him has at some point during his career.
Nadal’s major goal after winning the 2009 Australian Open is to win his first U.S. Open, where he can achieve a career Grand Slam. Toni Nadal says that his nephew isn’t going to hide in a dark closet, not when they have a Wimbledon title to defend.
“We know who we are and we know that Federer lost sometimes and we must also lose sometimes,” Toni said.
After returning home to Mallorca, Nadal showed his lighter side, appearing on television with some friends to sing himself a happy birthday. Unlike his millions of fans, he appeared to take the defeat in stride. “I have to accept my defeat as I accepted my victories: with calm. I need to learn, and you learn more when you lose than when you win,” he said.
But then trouble struck when it was revealed that he’s having serious knee problems, which forced him out of Queens and could take him out of defending his Wimbledon title.