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What does Soderling's once-epochal upset of Nadal mean 10 years later?
It’s still among the first, if not the first, match that comes to mind when we make our lists of the biggest upsets in tennis history. But it has also lost some of its shock value, for various reasons.
Published May 30, 2019
What happened on May 31, 2009 didn't happen on May 31, 2019. Today, Rafael Nadal won at the French Open, though he needed four sets to do it against David Goffin, 6-1, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3. With the victory, which you can watch above, Rafa reached the fourth round at Roland Garros—where the below happened, 10 years ago.
It has been 10 years since Robin Soderling beat Rafael Nadal in the fourth round of the 2009 French Open. If you’re a tennis fan, you probably remember where you were, and how you reacted, when you heard the news. I recall the moment well: Thinking that Rafa, who was 31-0 at Roland Garros to that point, was highly likely to go 32-0, I decided to DVR the match and go play tennis at the club I belonged to in Brooklyn. Halfway through my hitting session, I heard screaming—loud, extended yells from multiple people—coming from inside the concrete clubhouse. It was the type of sound you might here if an assassination or a nuclear attack had just been announced. My opponent and I stopped in the middle of a rally to find out what was going on, and so did the people playing on the courts around me. After a few seconds, the Brooklyn-accented screams became intelligible:
“OH MY GAWWWD, NADAL LOST! NADAL LOST! NADAL LOST AT THE FRENCH OPEN! OH MY GAWWWD!”
On the one hand, my fellow club members and I were relieved and amused to hear this; at least it wasn’t another 9/11. On the other hand, we were every bit as stunned as the people who were screaming. “I’m devastated,” a Rafa fan on the next court said to his doubles partner. Whether you liked Nadal or not, he had built up an aura of imperviousness in Paris that was unlike anything we’d seen in men’s tennis. The world was a slightly different place now that he had lost there. Something that couldn’t happen had happened.
Looking back a decade later, what does that loss—the “Act of Sod”—mean to tennis now? It’s still among the first, if not the first, match that comes to mind when we make our lists of the biggest upsets in tennis history. But it has also lost some of its shock value, for various reasons.
First, while it would take six more years, Nadal would lose again at Roland Garros, to Novak Djokovic in 2015. If Rafa were now 89-1 instead of 88-2 in Paris, the Soderling defeat would retain more of its mythic quality.
Second, in the years since, the match has acquired an unofficial asterisk, because Rafa was having trouble with his knees at the time. A few weeks later, he would pull out of Wimbledon for the same reason. Personally, I’ve never believed in asterisking a match unless the losing player is hobbling around the court, and Nadal wasn’t doing that. I don’t doubt that he was hurting, but he has probably been hurting in dozens of other matches over the years that he still managed to win. It took Soderling’s fearlessly, brutally aggressive performance to make him lose this one; I don’t see any reason to take anything away from that. While the Swede wasn’t a Hall-of-Famer, he wasn’t a fluke winner, either; he reached two French Open finals, and beat Nadal later that year in London.
But the biggest reason that the Soderling loss doesn’t mean as much as it once did is that, over the last 10 years, Nadal has essentially buried it.
He’s buried it by winning Roland Garros seven more times, going 57-1 at the tournament since (and we thought 31-0 was unreal), and confirming himself over and over as the greatest clay-court player in men’s tennis history.
He’s buried it by not only breaking what had once seemed an unbreakable Open era men’s record—Bjorn Borg’s six French titles—but by nearly doubling that total.
He’s buried it by never succumbing to the immense expectations that accompany him every time he takes the court in Paris. We often hear how the matches we’re supposed to win are the most nerve-wracking of all; if that’s true (and it is), how nerve-wracking are the ones that Rafa plays in Paris, where a defeat would be front-page news around the world? Yet Nadal never seems to give those expectations a second thought. He has buried the Soderling loss because, while he doesn’t have a perfect record in Paris, he has come close enough.
In 2009, Soderling’s victory was about his shocking, earth-shattering performance that day. In 2019, the match can only be seen in light of Nadal’s less shocking, but far more earth-shattering, and record-shattering, performance at Roland Garros in the years since. By now, no defeat at Roland Garros can take away from Rafa’s aura there.
But if you hear any screaming at your tennis club over the next week, you’ll know why.