In 2009, Robin Soderling stunned world no. 1 Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros, producing 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 Soderling took him down in the fourth round at Roland Garros!
Ranked 25th, the Swede had only 15 Major wins before Paris, failing to reach the fourth round at any of four notable events. 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 and 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 in Paris 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 Philippe-Chatrier for his career-best win and one of the biggest surprises in Majors history.
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. Nadal 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 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 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.
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.
Rafael Nadal lost to Robin Soderling in four sets at Roland Garros 2009.
Soderling confirmed the advantage with four winners in game five, closing the seventh 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 a way to break his rival in the second set's third game thanks to a solid crosscourt backhand that Robin failed to control. Nadal had 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 and delivered 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 third set's opening six games, and it was Soderling who gained the lead at 3-3, forcing Nadal's error to forge the advantage and cementing it with a service winner a few minutes later for 5-3.
Serving for the set at 5-4, the Swede hit two winners and sealed it after 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 Soderling's colossal forehand error, 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 and moved 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.