Well, Roger Federer's life just got a whole lot more interesting, and y'all know why: Robin Soderling, not Rafael Nadal, is on track to meet him in the French Open final.
Somehow, it just doesn't have the same ring. And of course, any of three other able men - more able, on paper, than the 6-3 pale-skinned Swede - might have a say in that, for Fernando Gonzalez, Andy Murray and Nikolay Davydenko (who's manhandling Fernando Verdasco as I write this) all are in the hunt now. The first thing that struck me when Nadal half-chopped, half-pushed a forehand volley wide, cross-court, to end the match is that two enormous stories exploded in Paris today, with the one-two count that you can actually verbalize to mark the cock-and-fire beauty of a Nadal forehand on a day when he's hitting the shot well. Which was not today, at least not for stretches that are less well described as long or short than as critical.
Those two stories are: Rafael Nadal, who won four successive titles at Roland Garros and vaulted to the world No. 1 ranking before he lost his first match here at the French Open, has been beaten, and not by one of the usual suspects. Story number two, and one that may prove to be even more historic, is that for the first time since the beginning of his golden era, Federer is, on record, the best clay-court player in the diminished draw and thus the instant favorite to win the title on Sunday. And we all know what that means: a career Grand Slam, and nearly universal acclaim as the greatest player ever to swing a racket.
And the most tantalizing question to rear its head is: Will Federer be able to handle it?
But let's leave that one hanging for now and backtrack a few hours. It was just my luck that I arrived here, more or less fresh (or stale) off my overnight flight from New York, just as things on Court Philippe Chatrier were getting interesting. While waiting for my credential to be processed, stunned press amigos kept wandering by saying, Do you see what's happening to Rafa?. . . What do you think of the way Soderling is playing?. . . Can you believe what's happening out there?
Well, at that point, Soderling was up a set and they were starting the second-set tiebreaker. When Rafa swept that one, I breathed a little more easily, and while I had no premonitions about Nadal losing, I had been thinking all morning about how quickly things can change in tennis. On a day-to-day basis, the game is predictable; the winning percentages of the top players attest to that. But you never really know where the land mines are buried, and when they go off they can alter the tennis landscape dramatically.
Running up to this event, I had a gut feeling that somehow we weren't going to see another Federer-Nadal final; that we'd had three successive ones already was remarkable, and in an odd way as much of a testament to the noteworthy superiority of both men. But for reasons that don't much matter here, I thought Federer was the one less likely to uphold his end of the deal. I was half-right, but instead of a mere scenery changer (for Nadal), we saw what might be a game changer for Federer.
In line with this reasoning, and cleaving to the conventional wisdom, could you have come up with a less likely spoiler than Robin Soderling, that lanky, stiff-armed Swede (the same one who lost to Nadal, 6-1, 6-0 in Rome just a few weeks ago)? This is as good an argument that exists for demolishing the inexact science of bracketology (as much fun as it is for some), or for lobbing thinly disguised insults over the Iberio-Swiss divide. Today, being in the same half as Soderling was a decided disadvantage, for he was very much on his game. But let me amend that first sentence slightly, in a broader perspective: Soderling is actually a picture-book spoiler: He hits pretty big and fairly flat (and guys like that are always a danger when they're feeling their oats), he's a veteran who appears to have a chip on his shoulder, and he tends to throb and then just as quickly detumescence on the radar.
I kept an eye on set three, and when Soderling wouldn't go away, taking it 6-4, I knew that even though I wasn't really in work mode yet, I'd better go out and sit in the sunshine to see if this was to be a four- or five-set opera. I started thinking about, instead of merely watching, the match in the third game, after it became clear that Rafa was going to have a hard time making that break of serve he earned in the second game stick. Soderling attacked Nadal's next service with brio. As Soderling later explained, "I tried to think, don't think. . . because you know, I just tried to play the next point after next point. . . I think I played exactly the way I wanted to play before the match. I didn't want him to make me run. I tried to be the one that make him run. I worked good with my forehand, and my backhand worked well. I worked my backhand flat and tried to go around and hit my forehand."
My first real note says: If there's an Appalachia in Sweden, that's where Soderling is from. He's big, raw-boned, woodsy-looking. His shirt theoretically is white, but it looks kind of dull, and the combination with those black-and-yellow shorts is pretty awful. But there's a deliberateness to his game today, and it projects danger, not clumsiness or poor movement as it might on another day . . .
By contrast, I was surprised at Nadal's outfit; I didn't know you could get such an aggressive shade of pink, and that seemed fitting. But something seemed missing in Nadal today, and even if you don't have a trained eye for technique or strategy, you could pick it up in the way he sometimes grunted between swings - not just as or immediately after he hit the ball, as if it was an effort playing - not just whacking that stupendous forehand.
At his best, Soderling at times showed what a combination of accuracy and aggression - as in serve-and volley play - can accomplish. It isn't all that complicated, you know. You dump the serve way wide, pick up the return coming in and go way wide the other way, then just cover your line as you close the angle and rumble to the net. What's so tough? Well, one thing you can control (your level of execution on the serve, approach, and killing volley) and one you cannot, which chiefly is the quality of the return. That's where Nadal can make it seem suicidal to attack; his return is not only upon you remarkably quickly, it's also someplace (down the line, cross-court, take your pick) where it isn't really convenient to implement your plan.
By the time Nadal held serve for 3-2, the skies were overcast, leaden clouds were waddling in from the west, and sitting in the stadium you would swear you could hear rolling thunder - only it was noise the wind always makes when it hits the courtside mikes. Soderling held, and the men exchanged holds again for 4-4. One point that Soderling served seemed particularly telling: at 30-0, he served into Nadal's body. Nadal tried to dance away, but didn't move quite quickly enough and awkwardly shoveled the ball out. It was telltale of the kind of day Rafa was having - a day late and a dollar short on too many occasions.
In the next game, Nadal appeared to come to life. He rolled to a 40-0 lead, and the overcast made him seem more dangerous, more vital. A red clay court never looks better than on an overcast day, when it has texture that is flattened out by sunlight. Under clouds, a red clay court looks like it's made of exquisitely soft, pliant buckskin. In the glare of an afternoon sun, it looks a dirt parking lot, but dimpled with ball marks rather than footprints of a horde tramping over to the sound stage.
Nadal won that ninth game whistling a passing shot by Soderling from close quarters; en route to his chair, Rafa waved a clear apology for hitting so close to his rival. It was a nice gesture, given that Soderling made fun of Nadal and more or less tried to bully him around at Wimbledon a few years ago, and if you think Nadal may be a bit intimidated by him, just think about the score in Rome. It's more likely that the person who thought the least about that Wimbledon incident was Nadal; Soderling's punishment for being such a boor has been having to answer questions about the incident, even today.
After Nadal won the 11th game in partial sunlight, you could almost hear Soderling thinking: Just get to the tiebreaker, just get to the 'breaker. As it was the fourth set, Soderling would be playing with house money if he got into the ever-dodgy tiebreaker, and if he made a hash of it there was still the prospect of a fifth set, stretching away toward the gloaming. Soderling struggled a bit; his 40-15 lead melted away to deuce, but he played a pair of great serves to hold and force the tiebreaker.
Nadal lost the first point, on serve, when he smacked the net with a forehand to end a rally. After Soderling elicited a forehand service return error, Nadal won his only point of the tiebreaker when Soderling drove an inside-out forehand out. When Nadal was broken twice to fall behind 1-4, the match was over.
I've often noticed that outstanding or significant matches very often don't generate terrific press conferences, and so it was today. It's pretty clear by this time that Nadal's hard-edged realism and logical way of looking at things is not a function of his age (and particularly not of a lack of worldliness or experience). This time, he found a few different but always simple ways to say the same thing: "I think I didn't play my best tennis, no? I didn't play my tennis, and for that reason I lost. That's it. I congratulate him and keep working hard for the next tournament."
Nadal's short version was that he was beaten because Soderling played well and he himself did not; his length was poor, all day.
A reporter tried to throw him a lifeline with a question about the wind, and the "difficult conditions," but Nadal replied: "No, no, no, no. The wind is there for both players, so no, no, no. I not going to put any excuse now. I think I played short because I played short. I didn't have my day."
You might have thought that, given Nadal's credentials, especially on clay, Soderling would have forgiven Nadal for expressing disappointment in the way he played, but in his own presser Soderling seemed to take issue with Nadal's assessment. He said: "I think I played very good for two weeks in a row, four good matches here. If he (Nadal) thinks he played bad, I mean, that's his choice. I would never say something like that, but. . ."
Never waste a chance to ruin a great moment, right?
So there you have it. The terms of the game have changed for everyone left in the draw, and we already saw how one potential champion handled the opportunity: Fernando Verdasco lurched out of the tournament, beaten in straights by Nikolay Davydenko. This sure is going to be interesting.