The Day Söderling Toppled The King Of Clay
It was a contest for the ages, a match that is still remembered as one of the biggest upsets in tennis history. Everyone attending or watching the 4th round clash between Robin Söderling and Rafael Nadal was pretty sure of what was expected to be straightforward outcome. Little did they know, a massive shock was in store for them.
Robin Söderling was seeded 23rd for the tournament and reached the Round of 16 after defeating Kevin Kim, Denis Istomin and David Ferrer. For a player whose career started in 2001, Söderling was still a relatively new name for the tennis masses. Ironically, he was most famous for an extraordinary five-set battle against Nadal at Wimbledon in 2007. The match lasted for four days due to the unrelenting rain at SW19. Rising frustration engendered caustic imitations and frostiness amongst the pair. But most of all, it gave rise to box-office tennis with powerful forehands, deft dropshots and flying volleys exchanged between the pair. Even though the Spaniard would emerge victorious, 28 seeded Söderling offered a glimpse of what he could offer on his day. His most recent encounter versus Rafa wasn’t so glowing, however- a 1-6, 0-6 pounding at the hands of Nadal on Rome’s clay in the lead up to the French Open in 2009.
Rafael Nadal, on the other hand, came into the match as the reigning French Open, Wimbledon and Australian Open champion. He also came with a record 31-match winning streak at Roland Garros and as a 4-time defending champion. Nadal, since his debut at the French Open in 2005, hadn’t lost a single singles match at the clay court Grand Slam till date. The stakes were high for the Spaniard, who was looking to extend his winning streak at the event and win it for the 5th time in a row, becoming the first to do so since Swedish legend Björn Borg’s record of 4 consecutive French Open titles. With an easy win over Söderling at Rome Masters on the back of his mind, Nadal would’ve come into the match feeling fairly confident.
Söderling off to a flyer
Söderling went all in from the start. Standing at 6’4” tall, the big Swede started the match with a ferocious ace and meant business from the word go. He held the first game in no time. But Nadal wasn’t someone to be tamed that easily, levelling the score at 1-1. Söderling depended mostly on his serve and volley game, causing trouble to the Spaniard with his big serves. The Swede broke Nadal’s serve and then thumped an ace to lead the game 4-1. His flat strokes penetrated through the court and his big swing forehand was an asset for him from the beginning. With an uncharacteristic unforced error from Rafa, Söderling won the first set comfortably by 6-2. It took him just 34 minutes to take the first set from the clay court specialist.
Rafa fights back
Söderling started the second set in the same vein as he had closed the first, serving aggressively and bombing inch perfect forehands against an increasingly befuddled Rafa. In the second game, it looked like the Swede would break early, but Nadal fought back brilliantly to even the score. Nadal then broke Söderling’s serve and after some riveting stroke-play between the two, Nadal raced to a 5-3 lead in the second. The Swede, however, refused to stick to the script and fought back brilliantly, holding his serve and breaking Nadal’s, to even the score at 5 games each in the second set. They held their subsequent service games to push the second into a crucial breaker.
At this point, the Swede who was looking quite comfortable in his stride, conceded 6 consecutive points to Nadal as he failed to maintain the potency and accuracy in his massive groundstrokes. He did bring it back to 6-2, but Rafa wrapped up the tiebreak and the second set in style, 72-62.
And everything seemed to have gone back to normal for a moment. We had seen this picture tens of times. The closing moments of the set were a waking call for the Swede. If he wanted to pull off the unthinkable, something that the mighty Roger Federer had failed to accomplish in four previous editions of the competition, he had to combine his fierce groundstrokes with eye of the needle precision. And then hope. Being the best player one could be and more simply wasn’t enough to overcome the indefatigable Kingoderl of Clay. One would have to hope for a miracle, an injury or an unprecedented meltdown from the great champion to have a chance to beat him.
Söderling stuns the tennis fraternity by pulling off the unthinkable
Nadal started the third set more determined than ever, looking to extend his record to 32-0 at Roland Garros. Both competitors won their service games respectively with ferocious hitting and wearying rallies. At 3-3, Rafa started his service game with an unforced error. And at 30-40, the 4-time defending champion made a big error, reaching out for the ball on his backhand and fluffing the ball over the Swede’s head, hitting it behind the baseline. Söderling broke, leading 3-4. Nadal was finding it difficult to match the intensity of Söderling’s mighty forehands and was committing a reasonable number of unforced errors. At 5-4, Söderling served brilliantly, using his net game to his advantage and held the game 40 to love, clinching the third set with stunning confidence. The match had now entered uncharted territory. Rafa would have to play his first, yes first five-setter at Roland Garros. The big Swede had already created history. But Söderling wouldn’t be content with merely posing a threat to the King’s crown without taking him down. He wanted to reserve a much bigger chapter for himself in tennis’ history books. One that would inspire articles every time the Slam rolled around this time of year. But he knew the job was far from over. He was up against one of tennis’ or indeed sport’s toughest fighters, that too in his own backyard.
Nadal started the fourth set in a combative manner. Winning his own service game, Nadal then broke Söderling’s serve to take a 2-0 lead, setting up a thrilling fourth set. However, Söderling dug deep once again and broke Rafa’s serve, bringing the set back on serve. The score read 6-5 in the favor of the Spaniard, as he looked to take the match into the final set. With Söderling serving to take the set into a breaker, Nadal forced the match into a deuce, but with his brilliant stroke-play, the Swede made it 6-6 in front of the enthralled crowd at Philippe Chatrier. Rafa, on the other hand, cut an increasingly frustrated figure as his repeated attempts to get back into the match were thwarted by the determined Swede. Söderling went in with his enormous forehands, catching Nadal off-guard at times, and stormed off to a near unassailable lead of 6-1. Staring at his first defeat at his beloved Roland Garros, the Spaniard tried to mount a fight back in typical Nadal fashion. As soon as Rafa sent an erroneous drop shot into the net, the crowd at Philippe Chatrier erupted with excitement and genuine disbelief.
Söderling managed to pull off a near-impossible task, defeating Rafael Nadal 6-2, 6²-7⁷, 6-4, 7⁷-6², at the King of Clay’s own fortress. The entire tennis fraternity was awestruck. Women’s tennis legend Martina Navratilova described the match as one of the greatest upsets in tennis history. Söderling took this momentum into the latter stages of the tournament, beating Nikolay Davydenko in the quarters and Fernando Gonzalez in the semis. He did, however, come up short against Federer as the Swiss maestro conquered the dirt of Roland Garros for the first time after 3 consecutive years of heartbreak at the hands of Nadal.
Nadal would go on to avenge this defeat – perhaps the most heartbreaking of his career – with an emotional win over Söderling in next year’s final after months of struggle with injury and form. But Söderling’s victory in 2009 had a huge impact on the game. Firstly, he became the first person to defeat Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros, a feat which was only achieved again by the great Novak Djokovic in 2015, showing what an uphill task, it was to defeat the best ever to play on the dirt in France. Secondly, 2009 is the only time Roger Federer has won the French Open till date. This victory enabled him to complete his Career Grand Slam and propelled him to world number 1 that year. He tied Sampras’ record for most Majors (14) and would go on to break his record at Wimbledon in under a month. Wondering what would’ve been if this upset didn’t happen is one for the readers.