“Where were you?”
It’s the question we ask each other when we remember the world’s most historic moments. Tennis fans of this era have been treated to plenty of those moments, but none was quite as memorable, or as stunning, as Robin Soderling’s fourth-round win over Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros on May 31, 2009. If you were playing tennis that day, you probably remember it well: When the news came across, the earth shook a little at clubs and parks all over the world. Those were the aftershocks from Paris.
As London’s Daily Telegraph put it the following day: “The impossible happened on the red clay at Court Philippe Chatrier on Sunday.”
Looking back, it can be hard to understand what was so impossible about one man beating another in a tennis match. Yes, the 22-year-old Nadal was 31-0 at Roland Garros, had won four straight titles in his four trips there, and was well on his way to becoming the best ever on clay. Yes, he was No. 1 in the world at that time, had been dominant again on dirt that spring, and had destroyed former No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt two days earlier. No, Nadal had never been pushed to five sets in Paris, and none of his opponents, not even Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic, had come remotely close to finding a solution to his muscular mix of power, speed, and consistency on clay.
Still, everyone loses sometime. Right?
In the six years since, the legend of Soderling’s upset has only grown. Now that we know Nadal would go on to win his next 35 matches at Roland Garros, we can better understand the richter-scale shock we felt that day. How did the unheralded Swede, the 23rd seed that year, a man whom Nadal had routed 6-1, 6-0 three weeks earlier in Rome, do what no other man has been able to do?
To start, Soderling was the type of player who has always troubled Nadal. At 6’4”, he was tall enough to handle Rafa’s high-kicking forehand. He had a two-handed backhand, so he could take the ball on the rise. His relatively flat strokes penetrated through the court and kept Nadal on the run. He had a big serve, and while he had always been volatile and erratic—in his seven years on tour, the 24-year-old had never reached a final on clay—he was an explosive ball-striker. Most important, Soderling refused to bow to the king of clay, or treat the moment as an extraordinary one.
“I’ve been around for a while,” Soderling said afterward, “and I just kept telling myself, ‘Just another match. I don’t care if it is the fourth round of the French against Nadal. This is just like any match.’ And this helped me.”
The truth was, Soderling had never shown Nadal any undue respect. Two years earlier, Rafa had beaten him in a contentious, rain-delayed, five-set match at Wimbledon. Over the course of it, Soderling had mocked Nadal’s habit of picking his shorts, failed to apologize for a net-cord winner or ask if Nadal was OK after he had taken a dangerous-looking spill on the grass, and offered little more than a dead-fish handshake at the net when it was over. Soderling’s behavior, while it was all in the name of hard-nosed competition, elicited what qualifies as an angry denunciation from Rafa:
“It’s not nice,” the Spaniard said.
It certainly wasn’t nice for Rafa inside Chatrier two years later. The Parisian crowd, which had never taken to Nadal, roared for “Ro-bin!” as he closed in on his impossible win. When it was over, Nadal gave his opponent credit—“Well, sure, he did well, he did very well”—but maintained that it was his own poor play that had doomed him. “I think I didn’t play my best tennis,” he said.
Nadal, apparently, didn’t feel his best, either. Three weeks later, he would pull out of Wimbledon with knee tendinitis. But Soderling, the one-man tennis earthquake, wasn’t through shaking up the world. He reached the final at Roland Garros and would go on to crack the Top 5. The following year in Paris, he would snap another legend’s streak. Soderling’s quarterfinal win over Roger Federer in 2010 ended the Swiss’s run of 23 straight semifinal appearances at the Slams.
“He’s very strange,” Rafa said of Soderling in 2007. It’s true, if by strange he meant that the Swede could do something that no one else could do. Soderling was just strange enough to beat Rafa at the French Open.