Rafael Nadal debuted at Roland Garros in 2005, just before his 19th birthday. Already establishing himself as one of the best clay-courters on the Tour, Rafa defeated Roger Federer and Mariano Puerta to win the title and become the last teenager with a Major crown.
Forging an unprecedented dominance at a single Major, Rafa has lost only three matches in Paris in the previous 17 years, winning mind-blowing 13 titles and failing to leave Paris with the trophy only four times. Speaking about his worst Roland Garros moments before his 17th appearance in Paris last year, Nadal mentioned that 2009 loss to Robin Soderling and the 2016 withdrawal.
After four straight Roland Garros titles, Nadal experienced a fourth-round loss to Robin Soderling in 2009, as the Swede stunned Rafa 6-2, 6-7, 6-4, 7-6 in three hours and 30 minutes on Court Philippe-Chatrier. Struggling with knee tendinitis that would force him to skip the grass season, Nadal could not prevail against the rival who threw everything he had at him.
Robin played better in the decisive moments to find himself over the top and earn a career-best victory. The Swede served well, defending his second serve more efficiently and taking every opportunity to attack and control the rallies.
Hitting the ball on the rise from both wings, Soderling tamed his groundstrokes to avoid cheap errors that would cost him at least one more set if he was not careful. Nadal had only four break chances in the entire encounter, converting two of those and suffering five breaks from six opportunities offered to the Swede, losing the edge in the pivotal moments to hit the exit door.
The defending champion stayed in touch with Soderling in the shortest points.
Rafael Nadal has failed to win the Roland Garros title four times since 2005.
Still, he was beaten badly in the mid-range exchanges between five and eight strokes, as Soderling engineered the rallies more efficiently to gain a crucial advantage.
Also, the Swede was on the level terms with his rival in the most extended exchanges that saw ten strokes or more. Nadal lacked power in his shots and the mental endurance that would guide him towards victory. In 2016, Nadal dropped only nine games against Sam Groth and Facundo Bagnis in the opening two rounds before giving Marcel Granollers a walkover ahead of the third round due to a wrist injury.
The Spaniard returned stronger in 2017 and claimed four consecutive titles to stand on 13 Parisian trophies. A year ago, he lost an epic semi-final to Novak Djokovic after four hours and 11 minutes. "To be honest, I played better in Monte Carlo and Rome than at Roland Garros in my early years.
It's more challenging to have a good feeling at Roland Garros; the court is enormous, and there are different sensations. I have never had bad feelings here, but that was also the case at other clay-court tournaments. My worst Roland Garros memories are, without a doubt, that 2009 Robin Soderling loss and a withdrawal in 2016.
Even though I do not like to say it, what I have accomplished in Paris is very special. I'm grateful, and I understand the gesture: I accomplished something challenging to imagine," Rafael Nadal said.