Rafael Nadal: A Look Back at His 2009 French Open Loss to Robin Soderling

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistMay 6, 2013

PARIS - MAY 31:  A dejected Rafael Nadal of Spain heads towards defeat during the Men's Singles Fourth Round match against Robin Soderling of Sweden on day eight of the French Open at Roland Garros on May 31, 2009 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Rafael Nadal has been historically dominant at the French Open with seven titles in eight years and a legendary 52-1 record. It’s as close to tennis perfection as has ever been seen at one Grand Slam venue.

But what about that single blemish, that reminder to the tennis world that even Nadal is not invincible at Roland Garros? It’s been nearly four years since his fourth-round loss to Robin Soderling, and even this has taken on mythical angles of its own.

Was Nadal injured? Was this just an off day? Did Soderling play out of his mind? What happened?

The following is another look at this classic moment through the lenses of 2013. It’s full of superfluous and irrelevant detail. If you want to read something that does not meander along with first-person, subjective musings, don’t read this.

I warned you.


Searching for Robin Soderling

Watching the French Open is one envious moment after another. You’re not actually in Paris, but there are plenty of pictures of Paris’s food and historic sites. It’s an annual reminder that it’s possible to plan a vacation to watch grown men slide along red clay and slap a yellow ball across a sagging net. The rest of us get to watch it on TV. Who needs Paris?

I’m a bit hesitant to rewatch this match. I’m a tennis fan first, but I'm especially partial to red clay champions, which means watching Nadal. He once annoyed me with his pirate attire, but more specifically because he likely denied Roger Federer calendar Grand Slams.

Since then, I’ve come to admire the way he fights through each point and marvel at his unique talent and toughness.

However, I’m not a Rafaholic and couldn’t tell you where to find any of his fan blogs, let alone what he ate for breakfast yesterday. If I’m partial to Nadal, I’m also not going to embark on a life-fulfilling pilgrimage to Majorca to shop for a souvenir headband or leave offerings of water bottles near the changeover bench at Nadal’s practice facility.

But I do feel like a masochist in sitting down to rewatch what's essentially Nadal’s Waterloo. It’s like a bad scene in a spectacular movie that you cannot change no matter how often you think it through and pose alternatives.

Nevertheless, it’s an important historical match precisely because beating Nadal at Roland Garros may be the most difficult feat in tennis history. This is a compliment to his greatness as well as to Sodeling’s greatest victory.

1st Set: Soderling Dominates With Aggressive Power

Nadal is arguably at the peak of his powers and looking to claim a fifth straight title at Roland Garros. He is, more than ever, the heavy favorite and seeded No. 1 for the first time at this tournament, all of which goes to show that there are upsets in sports impossible to foresee.

I’m watching Soderling carefully in the warm-ups, taking in his big 6’4” frame and facial goatee. He looks the part of a Viking conqueror, especially in lieu of this recorded beatdown he is about to deliver. It seems all the more impressive four years later. After all, nobody else has duplicated his deed.

The YouTube version I’m watching is from the Tennis Channel with commentators Leif Shiras and Martina Navratilova. The former is your traditional colorless narrator of the obvious, and the latter turns out to be completely unprepared to explain how Soderling had suddenly turned into the god of thunder.

For starters, neither commentator mentions a word about any physical limitations to Nadal’s knees or body. In fairness, matches like Nadal’s rumbles with Djokovic and Federer at Madrid were long past. Since then, Nadal had cruised rather easily with straight sets victories in the French Open. He had no bandages on his knees or hints of fatigue.

The second important point is that Soderling was decidedly not a clay-court player. Shiras and Navratilova refer to him as an indoors player. A few weeks earlier at Rome, Nadal had destroyed Soderling 6-1, 6-0.

Nobody saw a chance for Soderling to pick up one set, let alone three of four.

Early on in the first set, Soderling is hitting very hard. It’s like a practice session for him, teeing off on Nadal’s short balls and high topspin. He has a big serve that seems to bounce off the clay like it’s on carpet. He’s a super version of 2011 Novak Djokovic right now with winners flying off his racket like free croissants at Le Boulanger de Monge. There’s no fear. It’s as if he’s realized I can’t do any worse than Rome. I’m going to crush anything that floats up to my wheelhouse.

The alarming thing with Nadal is not that he’s just rolling in a lot of short backhand balls rather than biting them with punch the way he did to Federer at the 2009 Australian Open. There’s nothing unusual about seeing him drift farther behind the baseline until he is practically standing in Belgium.

The problem is Nadal’s confusion. He’s staggering as if hit by a George Foreman haymaker. Late in the first set, Nadal is far from giving up, but he’s agitated. His physical energy and hustle is there, and he’s trying to lock in, but his sense of will needs to be jump-started. There’s a low energy of purpose in his movement, and tennis does not look so fun for him right now.

Navratilova and Shiras discuss the 2007 Wimbledon meeting between Nadal and Soderling. In the fifth set, Soderling got irritated that Nadal took a lot of time between points. He tugged at the back of his shorts in mock imitation of Nadal. Their handshake was a quick open palm and shrug, like a Cold War meeting with the former Soviet Union. Translation: These guys don’t like each other.

Soderling is scorching winners and closes the first set with a 6-2 thumping. He broke Nadal five times behind sheer risk-reward power. He’s not just dictating play, he’s calling his shots like Fast Eddie Felson clearing the table at a game of pool.

2nd Set: Nadal Grinds Back with Determination

Nadal breaks in the third game. He celebrates with a fist pump, and it’s as if he’s Prometheus released from his eternal torment. He’s fighting, but still searching. He knows that the margin of error is slim. For every lifeless shot, Soderling retaliates by leaning in and driving his hard, flat backhand into sharp angles. Nadal needs to find a way to disrupt the other’s timing and confidence.

Navratilova is blaming Nadal’s form. She is pointing out that he is hitting his forehand off his back foot. She apparently does not realize that Nadal almost always hits off his back foot. His backhand is not conventional. He gets low, coils his right side and purposely shifts his weight to the back foot before unloading with an open upper body.

The problem is that Nadal doesn’t have the time to combat Soderling’s line drives, so he's frequently unable to do more than run down and stab-return many of his strokes.

Meanwhile, Soderling is driving many forehands up the line and right at the Nadal forehand. Nadal can’t make him pay because he’s too busy trying to catch up to the shots, and even if he does, the return is usually put on a platter for the attacking Soderling. Conditions are dry, which means the ball is traveling faster without humidity’s resistance.

At 4-3, I can switch over to NBC coverage on YouTube. In 2009, they had not even aired the beginning of this match but chose to come in at this point on tape delay. It’s hard to blame NBC. There would have been greater odds for Martians invading Earth than for a Soderling upset.

Ted Robinson, Mary Carillo and John McEnroe are calling the match. The early superlatives from them are mainly spent marveling at Soderling’s size and strength as if appraising an Olympic wrestler. Right on cue, Soderling bashes a monstrous ace.

Nadal is trying to close out the second set, but Soderling executes a masterful stab volley more reminiscent of Pistol Pete Sampras at Wimbledon. He follows this up a game later by saving break point—defending two Nadal inside-out forehands and lacing his own vicious forehand up the line. Soon the tiebreaker commences.

Nadal rolls out to a 4-0 tiebreaker lead. McEnroe observes that the crowd (cheering so vociferously for Soderling) is defeated because the tiebreaker is probably gone and likely the match. Nadal wins the second set tiebreaker 7-2, despite shaky play from both players in the set.


3rd Set: Soderling Keeps Attacking and Winning

Nadal wins the first point of the set, which means he leads the match. McEnroe is the first to say that it “would be a lot easier for (Roger) Federer if Nadal lost.” Maybe McEnroe is too stunned for hyperbole. He also notes that this match has to be encouraging for (Andy) Murray, (Fernando) Gonzalez and (Nikolay) Davydenko, who are battling for future encounters in this draw.

It’s hard to understand how Nadal could falter so badly while Soderling piled it on. It transcends physical mechanics and execution. The expectations of an easy victory had to play mind games with Nadal’s confidence when he found himself getting hammered by a non-seed. It thereby bolstered his opponent. If Nadal were losing to Federer, there would not have been a shock effect.

In hindsight, Nadal had no reason to see this coming. You can’t tell Nadal he should have been bearing down or playing differently in the first set. If I had beat somebody at the local tennis club 6-1, 6-0, I’d probably show up next time with a wooden racket.

Of course, ATP professionals are all highly talented, and the differences between champion and journeyman can be slim. It’s like those vehicle door mirrors that say “Objects are closer than they appear.” Someone is always trying to gain on you.

Soderling is back to his first-set zone. He rips another winner to run his count over Nadal to 38-21. Carillo discusses the risks and power that Soderling is utilizing for his big opportunity. He has Nadal looking frazzled. “I’ve never even seen his hair messed up,” she remarks. Right now Nadal’s dark strands are tousled strangely around and over his yellow headband.

The seventh game turns into the backbreaker for the third set. Soderling rips a huge backhand past a helpless Nadal to complete the break.

In the next game, at 15-30, Nadal falls down and rolls rather awkwardly, as if it were a bad flop. McEnroe says, “He just doesn’t know what to do out there.” There’s no reason to explain the symbolism here.

The remarkable thing in watching this is that this proved to be such an aberration. Nadal has fended off all subsequent attempts at someone breaking his will. Perhaps the memory of this match is too painful to allow any kind of letdown ever again, though losing to Rosol at the 2012 Wimbledon is near enough for comparison.

Soderling rides his confidence and big strokes to a stirring 6-4 set. One more set to go.


4th  Set: Soderling Completes the Greatest Upset of the 21st Century

Despite whatever else is said about this match, Nadal did not quit. He was outplayed, but he fought on. He opens with an easy hold and a break, and suddenly it looks like he can square up the match. He even delivers a sprited “Vamos!”

Immediately after, and keeping to the match’s bizarre theme, Nadal is broken at love. He was blown away with a couple carelessly hit balls, and Soderling devoured them as if it were his last meal.

Nadal retreats, walking bemused between points. He’s trying to gather energy, but it’s not happening. Is he thinking at all about his past titles? Does losing scare him?

It’s uncomfortable for him to be powerless here. The crowd is cheering decisively louder for Soderling. Many of them undoubtedly sense the opportunity it gives Federer, who has lost to Nadal the past four years at Roland Garros. There are others who simply hate success, and would love to see Nadal fall off his pedestal.

But Nadal is hanging in there, even if he has been outplayed. He scratches his way to 5-4 on serve and a 15-30 opportunity facing Soderling’s serve. He is two points away from a fifth set!

The second serve ball is in play with Nadal in control for 15-40, but then he inexplicably plunks a backhand into the net.

The tiebreaker is a foregone conclusion. Soderling wins 7-2 for a final line of 6-2, 6-7, 6-4, 7-6, a match for the ages, and secures his own French Open immorality. He would go on to the finals before bowing out to Federer’s lone French Open title.

Probing Through the Rubble

There’s not much else to say after rewatching this match, except a sense of peace and acceptance. Clearly, Nadal was outplayed. He was almost doubled up by winners (Soderling 61, Nadal 33) and lost to a more aggressive, attacking hitter who played an outstanding match. If anything, the match was more lopsided than the final score shows.

Soderling deserved all credit for this victory. Nadal’s knees were not a problem in limiting his mobility, so they should not be cited as an excuse. Soderling’s great day may have beat 2008 Rafa for all we know. He also built on this victory with more French Open success and eventually peaked at No. 4 in the world rankings.

Nadal would later insist that he did not take Soderling lightly, according to BBC Sport: “He (Soderling) didn't surprise me because I know how he plays and how dangerous he can be.”

Nadal chalked it up as an off day, admitting he was not calm enough for the big points. He said he fought hard, “but sometimes fighting is not enough. You have to play a good level of tennis.”

He explained his loss succinctly, also through BBC Sports: "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."

Less than three weeks later, Nadal pulled out of Wimbledon, citing tendonitis in his knees. He said the pain worsened in his Madrid final loss to Federer before the French Open.

The following year, Nadal and Soderling would meet again at the French Open, this time in the finals. There would be no miracle encore, as Nadal restored order in his clay-court legacy with a straight sets victory.

Soderling is currently inactive from the ATP tour as he battles a severe case of mononucleosis. It’s unknown if he will make a comeback.

Nadal moves forward with a mini-comeback after being shelved by tendonitis for seven months. He seeks an eighth French Open title in nine years.