Soderling Hands Nadal His First Career Loss at French Open

No. 9 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus reaches for a shot during her 6-2, 6-3 victory over defending women's champion Ana Ivanovic.
No. 9 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus reaches for a shot during her 6-2, 6-3 victory over defending women's champion Ana Ivanovic. (By Patrick Kovarik -- Afp Via Getty Images)
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By Howard Fendrich
Associated Press
Monday, June 1, 2009

PARIS, May 31 -- For 31 matches, Rafael Nadal ruled the red clay of Roland Garros, boasting an unbeaten record and an unbreakable will.

For 31 matches, dating from his debut on May 23, 2005, Nadal never truly was challenged, much less defeated, at the French Open, allowing him to win four consecutive titles and close in on becoming the first player in history with five in a row.

Until the fourth round of the 2009 French Open. Until Robin Soderling, a 24-year-old from Sweden with a bit of an attitude and 6-foot-3 worth of power, transformed Nadal's career mark at Roland Garros from a best-ever 31-0 to 31-1 with 3 1/2 hours of assertive, and sometimes spectacular, play.

"Well, that's the end of the road, and I have to accept it," Nadal said. "I have to accept my defeat as I accepted my victories: with calm."

Soderling's 6-2, 6-7 (7-2), 6-4, 7-6 (7-2) victory over the No. 1-seeded Nadal rates as one of the biggest upsets in tennis history. Set aside all of Nadal's bona fides -- the dominance on clay; the six Grand Slam titles, including at Wimbledon and the Australian Open -- and focus on this: The 23rd-seeded Soderling never had won so much as a third-round match at any major tournament before this one.

Nadal won all three of their previous meetings, including a contentious match at Wimbledon in 2007, and a 6-1, 6-0 rout on clay at Rome in April. But this time, Nadal was a half-step slower than usual and Soderling was lights-out good.

Soderling finished with 61 winners, 28 more than Nadal, and won the point on 27 of 35 trips to the net.

"I played exactly the way I wanted to play before the match," Soderling said. "I served well, extremely well, and that really, really helped me today."

The stunning result rendered the rest of Sunday's action mere footnotes, from reigning French Open women's champion Ana Ivanovic's exit in a 6-2, 6-3 loss to No. 9 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, to Maria Sharapova's latest three-set victory, to the Williams sisters losing in doubles.

All that really mattered was Nadal's ouster. In the first round, he broke Bjorn Borg's record of 28 straight French Open wins by a man. In the second, he eclipsed Chris Evert's overall tournament record of 29.

The biggest beneficiary might be Roger Federer, the 13-time major champion whose résumé is missing only a French Open title. Federer lost to Nadal in each of the past three finals at Roland Garros, and in the 2005 semifinals, too.

"If one guy deserves it," Nadal said, "that's him."

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