The ten best French Open men’s matches this century: Söderling-Nadal, fourth round, 2009
No-one gave rank outsider Robin Söderling a prayer against four-time champion Rafael Nadal at the French Open. No-one, that is, save for Söderling himself, who stepped up to the plate and played out of his skin to record one of the great upsets in sporting history.
There was little to indicate that the King of Clay would have any trouble here. The 22-year-old was champion not only of Paris but London, having denied Roger Federer a sixth Wimbledon crown a year earlier. He’d then muscled his way to Olympic gold in Beijing before claiming his maiden hard-court slam at the Australian Open. As for the clay-court season, it was business as usual for the Manacor man, who added a fifth straight Monte-Carlo title, a fifth consecutive Barcelona crown and a fourth Rome title in five years. As if the task wasn’t daunting enough, Nadal had also recorded a record 31 consecutive wins in Paris, having surpassed Björn Borg’s previous tally of 28. Söderling, in other words, had a mountain to climb.
So what could he do but climb it? In the fourth round of a slam for the first time, the World No. 23 simply put his game on court, fearlessly taking the fight to Nadal by deploying crushing forehands and pinpoint backhands. Söderling played with complete freedom that day, in heavy conditions that suited his game, and the Philippe Chatrier crowd could only watch in awe as he raced to the first set in just over half an hour. Nadal wasn’t doing much wrong but Söderling was taking the initiative, sending him scampering left and right and planting seeds of doubt in his mind.
In the second set, the defending champion’s resolve put him back in contention, though he was aided by Söderling’s falling first serve percentage. After securing an early break to lead 2-1, Rafa was comfortable on serve till the 10th game, when he sought to see out the set. After bringing up a break point, Söderling thumped a forehand out wide before pouncing on the short return at full stretch, his volleyed winner levelling things at 5-5. In the subsequent breaker, Nadal evened the score when Söderling sent a mid-court forehand long.
Nadal would’ve been a huge favourite to accelerate through the remainder, the aberration of the opener having been put behind him. But Söderling channelled Borg and stayed ice-cold in the midst of the firefight, breaking Nadal in the seventh game then serving out to love a few games later. The fourth was incredibly attritional, the pair trading early breaks – but with Söderling serving at over 74% and scorching the dirt with an unfathomable 20 winners, mostly off the forehand side, he was the one in charge. In the tie break, Nadal cracked under fierce pressure as the Swede capped his incredible performance with a dominant 7-2 scoreline to triumph 6–2, 6–7, 6–4, 7–6.
“I played very short, and I made it very easy for him to play at this level,” a shellshocked Nadal said afterwards. Whatever the justification, Söderling had etched his name in the history books.
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