When Rafael Nadal experienced his first Roland Garros loss

Tennis - Nadal fell to Robin Soderling in the 2009 fourth round

by Jovica Ilic
When Rafael Nadal experienced his first Roland Garros loss

Rafael Nadal claimed four consecutive Roland Garros titles between 2005 and 2008. The fifth crown in a row stayed out of Rafa's reach when Robin Soderling stunned him in the fourth round in 2009. The Swiss toppled the Spaniard 6-2, 6-7, 6-4, 7-6 in three and a half hours on Court Philippe-Chatrier and delivered Nadal's first best-of-five match loss on his beloved clay.

Ranked 25th, the Swede had only 15 Major wins before Paris and no result better than the third round. Also, he had never beaten Nadal in three encounters, winning just one game in Rome a few weeks earlier! The Spaniard entered the clash as the clear favorite, winning all 31 previous matches in Paris and chasing the fifth consecutive Roland Garros crown.

As always since 2005, he was a player to beat on clay that spring, lifting trophies in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome and reaching the final in Madrid following that epic semi-final clash against Novak Djokovic. The Spaniard had lost just 24 games in the opening three rounds in Paris against Marcos Daniel, Teymuraz Gabashvili and Lleyton Hewitt to set Robin Soderling clash.

The Swede ended Nadal's streak and delivered one of the biggest surprises at Majors in the 21st century. Rafa had his chances, but it was not to be for him, losing ground from the baseline against the opponent who had nothing to lose.

Robin played with focus and determination in the last tie break to dethrone the four-time champion and open the draw for Roger Federer, who would win his only Roland Garros a couple of days later. Rafa certainly was not at his best, and he would miss the grass season due to knee tendinitis.

Still, we should not take anything from Robin's victory. The Swede served well, defending his second serve more efficiently and taking every opportunity to attack. Hitting the ball on the rise from both wings, Soderling tamed his groundstrokes to avoid cheap errors that would have cost him at least one more set if he was not careful.

Nadal had only four break chances in the entire encounter. He converted two and suffered 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.

Still, he was beaten badly in the mid-range exchanges between five and eight strokes, with Soderling engineering the rallies more efficiently and gaining 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 or the mental endurance to guide him towards victory. Robin found his rhythm early on, and it was clear what his tactics would be, attacking from every opportunity and punishing short balls from the other side of the net.

Rafael Nadal lost his first Roland Garros match to Robin Soderling in 2009.

His powerful strokes were too hard to handle for Rafa, and the Swede kicked off the action with an early break. Robin grabbed a break in game four, opening a 3-1 lead to boost his confidence.

Soderling confirmed the advantage with four winners in game five and closed the seventh with another missile from his forehand to open a 5-2 gap. Nadal lost serve again in the next one from 40-15 up after netting an easy backhand to drop the opener 6-2.

The Spaniard finally stole his rival's serve in the second set's third game thanks to a solid crosscourt backhand that Robin failed to control. Rafa had a chance to go 4-1 up, but he netted another backhand and missed an excellent opportunity to build a healthy advantage.

Soderling closed the game with a forehand winner and served well in the rest of the set. He broke Nadal with a beautiful volley at 4-5 to level the score and saved a break point in the next one with a forehand winner. Nadal was a better player in the tie break, taking it 7-2 to level the overall score and improve his chances in one of his most significant tests in Paris in five years.

Both players served well in the third set's opening six games before Soderling gained the lead at 3-3. He forced Nadal's error to forge the advantage and cemented it with a service winner a few minutes later. Serving for the set at 5-4, the Swede hit two winners and sealed it with Nadal's forced error, moving two sets to one in front after two and a half hours of high-quality tennis.

Rafa kept fighting and broke in the fourth set's second game after Robin's colossal forehand error. The Spaniard stayed in front only for a couple of minutes, and the Swede pulled the break back at love thanks to another loose backhand from the king of clay.

Rafa was a better player in the rest of the set but could not take advantage of that. He allowed Robin to hold serve after deuces at 5-6 and set up a tie break, a must-win one for the defending champion. Soderling forged a 4-1 lead after another backhand mistake from Nadal and moved closer to the finish line after a superb volley. The Swede converted his second match point at 6-2 to start a massive celebration after a cold handshake at the net.

Rafael Nadal Roland Garros Robin Soderling