In 2009, Robin Soderling stunned world no. 1 Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros, delivering the Spaniard's first loss at his beloved Major. Since 2004, Nadal had lost just two matches on clay in the best-of-five format, with the first of those standing as one of the biggest surprises in tennis history when Robin Soderling took him down in the fourth round at Roland Garros!
Ranked 25th, the Swede had only 15 Grand Slam wins before Paris, failing to reach the fourth round at any Major. 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 the player to beat on clay that spring, lifting trophies in Monte Caro, Barcelona and Rome, also reaching the final in Madrid following that epic semi-final clash against Novak Djokovic. The Spaniard had lost just 24 games overall in the opening three rounds against Marcos Daniel, Teymuraz Gabashvili and Lleyton Hewitt, facing Robin Soderling who was on a different level that day.
The Swede toppled Nadal 6-2, 6-7, 6-4, 7-6 in three hours and 30 minutes on the Philippe Chatrier for his career-best win and one of the biggest surprises in the history of Grand Slam tournaments. Rafa had his chances but it wasn't 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 wasn't at his best (he would miss the grass season due to knee tendinitis), although we can't take anything from Robin's victory, doing just about everything right on the court to earn the win fair and square.
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 wasn't 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.
Still, he was beaten badly in the mid-range exchanges between five and eight strokes, with Soderling engineering the rallies more efficiently to gain a crucial advantage.
Also, the Swede was on the level terms with his rival in the most extended rallies that saw ten strokes or more, with Nadal lacking power in his shots or the mental endurance that would guide him towards the victory and the place in the quarters.
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. His powerful strokes were too hard to handle for Rafa, and the Swede 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, closing the seventh one with another missile from his forehand to open a 5-2 gap. From 40-15 in the next game, Nadal lost serve again after netting an easy backhand to drop the opener 6-2 after 34 minutes.
The Spaniard finally found the way to break his rival in the third game of the second set thanks to a solid crosscourt backhand that Robin failed to control, having a chance to go 4-1 up before sending another backhand into the net and missing a great opportunity to build a healthy advantage.
Soderling closed that game with a forehand winner and served well in the rest of the set, returning to stay in touch at 4-5. He broke Nadal's serve with a beautiful volley to level the score, delivering another blow for the Spaniard in the next game after erasing a break chance with a forehand winner.
Nadal was the 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 opening six games of the third set and it was Soderling who gained the lead at 3-3, forcing an error from Nadal to forge the advantage and cementing it with a service winner a few minutes later for a 5-3.
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, breaking in the second game of the fourth set after a colossal forehand error from Soderling, staying in front only for a couple of minutes as the Swede pulled the break back at love thanks to another loose backhand from the king of clay.
Rafa was the better player in the rest of the set but couldn't take advantage of that, allowing Robin to hold serve after deuces at 5-6 to set up a tie break, a must-win one for the defending champion. Robin forged a 4-1 lead after another backhand mistake from Nadal, moving closer to the finish line after a great volley.
The Swede converted his second match point at 6-2 to start a huge celebration after a cold handshake at the net. "At Roland Garros 2009, I became the first player to beat Rafael Nadal in Paris. I went into the match with absolutely nothing to lose and everything to win.
I didn't know how to play with topspin anyway, so I played even flatter; I didn't care if I would miss it. I knew I wouldn't win if I didn't take my chances, and it worked out really well on that day. I was playing so freely, and that was a fantastic feeling," Robin Soderling said.