As Rafael Nadal walked on to Court Philippe Chatrier to play his round of 16 match versus 25th-ranked Robin Soderling, there was little reason for him - or anyone else - to suspect there was trouble ahead. Nadal at this point was 31-0 at Roland Garros, in pursuit of a record fifth straight men’s singles title. As for Soderling, the two had played just a few weeks earlier in Rome, Nadal winning handily, 6-1, 6-0.
It was one thing for Soderling to handily win the first set, 6-2. Nadal squeaked out the second in a tiebreaker, but by then it was clear: Soderling was not going away. The Swede was executing with forthright aggression and nearly flawless precision. Be it a whopper of a forehand, a forceful backhand or a big serve, everywhere Soderling imposed himself on the Spaniard.
A subtext to this match was the relationship between Nadal and Soderling. At Wimbledon in 2007, the two had played a rain-delayed match that Nadal had won, 7-5 in the fifth. More significantly, throughout the match Soderling had mocked Nadal. “It’s not nice,” the Spaniard said afterwards.
The third and fourth sets at Roland Garros were tight, but Soderling remained poised. He took the third 6-4. The fourth went to a tiebreaker - and here again, Soderling asserted himself, taking six of the first seven points. Nadal saved one match point, but Soderling took the next to close out the match of his career.
The French crowd at the end had cheered loudly for Soderling. “It’s too bad really - at a tournament that means so much to me and is so beautiful - that the public has never made such a gesture to me,” said Nadal. “But I’m not going to use that as an excuse.”
Soderling went on to reach the finals, losing to the man likely most aided by Nadal’s exit, Roger Federer. But a year later, Soderling would beat Federer in the quarters of Roland Garros.
Nadal would return to Roland Garros more determined than ever. His 2010 title run - finished with a win over Soderling - began an amazing run of five straight Roland Garros championships.
(with thanks to Randy Walker and Mikki Singh for their app, On This Day in Tennis History)
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