May 31, 2009: The day Rafael Nadal lost at Roland-Garros for the first time
- 31 May 2020
What happened exactly on that day?
On this day, May 31, 2009, the unbelievable happened as Rafael Nadal was defeated for the first time ever at Roland-Garros, in the fourth round by Robin Soderling, whom he had destroyed a few weeks before in Rome, 6-1 6-0. This was one of the biggest shocks in the tournament’s history. Nadal had triumphed at the French Open four times in a row between 2005 and 2008 and had won 31 matches in a row there. Rafa’s loss also created a new opportunity for his rival Roger Federer to eventually win the tournament.
Rafael Nadal was only 22 but his achievements had already secured him a spot in tennis history. He was still undefeated at Roland-Garros – since his first appearance, in 2005, he had won all four times he had participated. No one had even managed to push him into a fifth set. Not only was he considered almost unbeatable on clay, having lost only two matches since his loss to Igor Andreev in Valencia, in April 2005, but he had now improved his game and had claimed three of the last four Grand Slams on different surfaces. He became world No 1 on the 18th August, 2008 and it seemed that no one could prevent him from dominating the tour. He had already collected five trophies in 2009, including the Australian Open and three Masters 1000 events (Indian Wells, Monte-Carlo, Rome). He seemed to be on his way to a fifth consecutive Roland-Garros title, without anyone to challenge him.
Robin Soderling, from Sweden, was born in 1984. He had claimed his first title on the tour in Lyon at the age of 20 and, with his powerful serve and killer forehand, he was predicted to quickly become a top 10 player. However, he was often betrayed by his emotional outbursts and his results had not matched the expectations. At the start of the 2009 French Open, three months before his 25th birthday, Soderling was ranked No 25, he had won only three tournaments on the tour, Lyon being the biggest one, and he had never reached the fourth round in a Grand Slam tournament.
The story took place at Roland-Garros, Paris. The stadium, located in the west of Paris at the edge of the Bois de Boulogne forest, had been hosting the French Open since 1928. It was the first and now the only Grand Slam to be played on clay, the slowest surface, which made it the hardest tournament to win from a physical perspective.
All three of Soderling’s titles had come on indoor courts and clay was not believed to be his best surface, as his Roland-Garros record showed: in five appearances, he had never made it to the fourth round, and three times he had lost in the first round.
Rafael Nadal had already become part of Roland-Garros history by claiming four titles there. In 2009, a part of the French public started to think his prominence was killing the tournament as no one seemed to be capable of challenging him.
Scheduled on the Philippe Chatrier court on Sunday 31st May, 2009, the encounter between Nadal and Soderling was not supposed to be an event. The Bull from Manacor was the tournament favourite, the King of clay, undefeated at the French Open, while his opponent, ranked No 25 in the world, had never been known to be a great player on red dirt. The only thing that could spice up this match was the fact that the two players had a personal history. Although Soderling had never defeated the Spaniard, he had pushed him to five sets in the third round at Wimbledon in 2007. In this intense match, played over five days due to multiple rain delays, the Swede had made himself famous by provocatively mocking Nadal’s pulling of his underwear routine. The lefty did not appreciate the joke and after Nadal eventually sealed his victory (6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 4-6, 7-5), Soderling gave him a very cold handshake.
In 2009, in Rome, in a match easily won by Nadal, 6-1, 6-0, Soderling showed poor sportsmanship when he showed the umpire a wrong mark. If there was anyone Nadal did not want to lose against, it was probably Soderling.
Yet from the very start, the tall Swede made clear that he was not there to let himself being destroyed the way it had happened in Rome. He was serving bombs and his flat forehand seemed to be in the groove, one of those rare days when he couldn’t miss. Nadal, on the other hand, was playing too short to stop his opponent from dictating the rallies and his defensive game was not at its usual level. To general astonishment, Soderling sealed a perfect first set, 6-2.
Nadal, even if he was obviously not having a good day, was still a tough opponent. As soon as Soderling slipped from perfect to excellent, there was no easy way for him to get rid of the Spaniard. A few mistakes later, the four-time champion had claimed the second set 7-6. Things were back to normal, people thought. Nadal would now crush his opponent in the next sets, such was the usual scenario.
Unfortunately for him, Soderling was no regular opponent that day. Playing in the zone, he kept blasting forehands in every direction, firing monster serves, stepping in to punish Nadal on any short ball. The third set was his, 6-4. The entire tennis world was now watching. No one had ever managed to win two sets against Nadal in Roland-Garros. Anything was now possible.
Robin Soderling did not let the pressure prevent him from taking his chances. He knew that the only way for him to keep Nadal at bay was to continue applying his aggressive strategy. He could not allow Nadal to dictate the game and run him around the court. On the other side of the net, the King of clay could not find enough depth to block the Swede on his backhand side as he had originally intended, and therefore, he was exposed to Soderling’s massive forehand.
As the fourth set went on, the crowd started to believe in Soderling’s chances to actually give Nadal his first loss ever at Roland-Garros. The unpredictable French public, probably excited by the idea of such a surprise, chose to support the Swede. By the time the players got into a tiebreak, Nadal had several thousand opponents.
As always, Nadal gave everything he had to push Soderling into a fifth set. It was not enough. The Swede was too good. The tennis world could not believe what had just happened; against all odds, Soderling had defeated Nadal in the fourth round at Roland-Garros, 6-2, 6-7, 6-4, 7-6.
After the match, it would appear that Rafael Nadal was mentally worn out by family issues, which had been bothering him for several months already, topped with a very intense schedule since the start of 2009 and a painful left knee. He would pull out of Wimbledon, missing the honour of opening the tournament as the defending champion. He would not win a title in the second half of the season, still reaching the semi-finals at the US Open where Juan Martin del Potro would destroy him (6-2, 6-2, 6-2). Only with the return of the clay-court season, in 2010, would he become his true self again. Nadal would add eight other Roland-Garros titles to his list of achievements, holding a record of 12 – and counting – French Open crowns.
Soderling would seize the momentum and continue his run to reach the 2009 Roland-Garros final, where he would be defeated by Roger Federer (6-1, 7-6, 6-4). Federer would also eliminate him from Wimbledon and the US Open that year but in 2010, Soderling would make a scene again in Paris, upsetting the Swiss in the quarter-finals (3-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4). He would go on again to reach the final but this time Nadal would prevail in straight sets, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4.
Nadal and especially his uncle Toni would make it obvious that they did not appreciate how the public supported Soderling against him. Toni Nadal would even call the French crowd “stupid”. Over the years, this feeling would fade and Nadal would have much more support from the Parisian public than in his first years. Only once would Rafael Nadal lose again in his favourite tournament, beaten in the 2015 quarter-final by Novak Djokovic (7-5, 6-3, 6-1). This would make Soderling’s 2009 victory, which was already an earthquake at the time, even more legendary as time goes by.
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