Robin Soderling smothered Rafael Nadal in the fourth round at the French Open and sent him home early for the first time in four years.
Pete Sampras might have swallowed just a little bit after he woke up this morning and checked the scores at Roland Garros. The King is dead. After four straight French Open titles, Rafael Nadal finally played a bad game and opened the door for Roger Federer to equal Sampras’ record of 14 slams. Four years and 31 straight victories on the beautiful terre battue and Rafa finally played a subpar game on a day when his opponent played out of his mind.
Not only would Roger match Sampras’ record if he cashed in Rafa’s gift by winning the title in Paris, but he’d pass Sampras in most people’s minds because he’d have a career slam while Sampras only ever managed to reach one semifinal in Paris. My mind immediately went into nerd mode.
What if Roger won this thing and then got another U.S. Open to get his 15th slam? No one is going to edge Rod Laver out of the conversation with his two calendar slams – unless Rafa got one before he was done and became 1a next to Laver because only one of Laver’s calendar slams was in the Open Era. Would we hold Roger’s abysmal losing record to Rafa against him and give him a “greatest of all time” with an asterisk? Ah well, I’m getting ahead of myself here.
Six times in his post match media session, Rafa said he’d left he ball short and that’s why he’d lost his first match ever at Roland Garros by going down to Robin Soderling, 6‑2, 6‑7(2), 6‑4, 7‑6(2). Rafa didn’t rise to the occasion and he didn’t fight tooth and nail in his usual rock steady style. And the ball wasn’t just short, a lot of the time it didn’t even reach the net.
It probably looks like Soderling is one of the least likely candidates to end such a stupendous winning streak, particularly as he lost to Rafa 6-1, 6-0, at the Rome event in April. And if you watch Soderling running from corner to corner on clay, his strides are so long you wonder his feet don’t go out from under him with regularity.
But Soderling has those hard flat shots that gave Tomas Berdych and James Blake three match winning streaks over Rafa in 2005 and 2006. Then there’s David Nalbandian who still has a career winning record over Rafa. Nalbandian is a master at redirecting the ball, particularly off his backhand side that is not bothered a wit by Rafa’s high bouncing left forehand.
And then there was the semifinal in Madrid a few weeks ago when Novak Djokovic won point after point by hitting enough flat shots to Rafa’s backhand to open up the court for sharp angled winner to the forehand side. Djokovic had three match points and played the match of his life, but Rafa recovered from a sore knee in time to rise to the occasion and come up with just enough fantastic points to win the match.
The next day Rafa lost the Madrid title to Federer and so the stage was set for his loss today. Soderling, the hard hitting player who isn’t as good as Djokovic or Nalbandian at redirecting the ball but is a tall dude who isn’t bothered by the high bouncer to his backhand either, the sore knee in Madrid, the whispers that Rafa didn’t quite look himself in his early rounds in Paris, and today, an agitated, stressed out Rafa throwing his arms up in despair as another ball landed in the net or over the baseline.
And that was the most surprising part of the loss. Calmness. He’s the best fighter out there because he remains calm enough to maintain his focus. When someone asked him what happened to his calm in the post match media session, this was his response:
Well, I never was calm; that’s the truth. Instead of losing my calm, the match started off very badly for me. I mean, the second set, I should have won it 6‑4. …Then not being calm enough to face the important points, …I had to fight. But sometimes it’s not enough fighting. You have to play a good level of tennis.
And 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. I must say that at key moments I couldn’t take the opportunity because I was losing my calm, and I didn’t play well.
Here’s where we have to give Soderling a tremendous amount of credit because Soderling never allowed Rafa to reach a good level of tennis – he never allowed him to find his calm. After winning just one game off Rafa in Madrid, Soderling came into this match swinging for the lines and never stopped. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t but it’s the only way Soderling was going to beat him and he persisted no matter what.
The first thing that comes to mind for me is Roger Federer. We’ve been screaming at him to attack Rafa and, instead, he tries one thing and if it doesn’t work he goes on to another. He’s not the same style of player as Soderling but he also isn’t as brave. He has more to lose. If Soderling loses to Rafa, well, no big deal. We expect that. If Roger loses to him, that’s one more reason why he won’t be the greatest.
But now that Roger beat Rafa at Madrid by attacking on the fast court and especially after watching Djokovic almost beat Rafa and Soderling finally finish him off with relentlessly aggressive tennis, I’m gonna tear my hair out if Roger does anything less should he meet Rafa again here next year.
The main entertainment during today’s match was trying to figure out when Soderling would fold. When would he start spraying his shots or hitting double faults? When would he start losing focus? When would he start acting surly and grumpy? He came close a few times.
After winning the first set easily then losing the second set in a tiebreak, Soderling looked liked he was going to lose his serve early in the third set but righted himself and broke Rafa to go up 4-3. Soderling served out to win the set but then lost his serve early in the fourth set to go down 2-0. Here we go, I thought, but then he broke back immediately at love. And as the fourth set progressed, Soderling found himself in the zone. His serve kept improving and his shots kept finding the lines.
On clay against Nadal, that’s only enough to get you to the tiebreaker, but if Soderling could serve his way through that, he had the win. He found himself up 6-1 in the tiebreak and it was his groundstrokes as much as his serve. A backhand dipper at the net that Rafa couldn’t handle, and Soderling had his win.
It looks like Roger’s main competition will come from Juan Martin Del Potro in his half of the draw and should he get past Del Potro, Nikolay Davydenko is threatening to get to the final because Andy Murray isn’t yet that good on clay. I don’t know about you, but now that Rafa can’t win the calendar slam – and I was looking for that because I want the greatest of all time list to look as funky and confused as possible, mainly because the longer you follow sports, the more you realize how rare sustained greatness is – my heart is all over Roger’s path to the final and his first French Open title. C’mon, man, don’t disappoint me now.