Both Defending Champs Out At French Open
May 31, 2009 -- Robin Soderling shocked the tennis world today, upsetting Rafael Nadal 62 67 (2) 64 76 (2) at The French Open. In his four years of competition at Roland Garros, world #1 Nadal has never lost a match on his terre battue, except today.
On the women's side, defending champion Ana Ivanovic lost her hopes of a second run to the final when Victoria Azarenka beat her 62 63.
With both Nadal and Ivanovic out of the competition, two new names will hold the Coupe Des Mousquetaires and Coupe Suzanne Lenglen next Sunday.
With all due credit to Soderling, who took advantage of his opportunities today, Rafa looked out of sorts from the beginning of the first set that Soderling won in 34 minutes, confirming the misgivings. Rafa went up a break in the second, lost it, but won the tiebreak easily 7-2. The match was tied.
"I played very short today," Nadal said. "I didn't play great. I didn't play with calm at no one time during all the match."
The reigning King Of Clay could not withstand Soderling's barrage of forehand assaults and killer serves, which included 9 aces. However, one element that propelled Soderling to his first win against Nadal was break-point conversions -- 83%. The Swede took advantage of five of six chances while Nadal only converted at 50% or one or two. On second service points won, Soderling scored 62% - a stunning amount.
Although many attributed Nadal's loss to his tournament schedule or some sort of emotional upheaval, the Spaniard knew he had simply lost because he didn't play well.
"I am not very happy," he said. "That's true, no? You know, is tough always losing in a Grand Slam, especially in one where you have the better chance to win than the rest of the others. But, I congratulate him [Soderling] and keep working hard for the next tournament."
Robin Soderling had played Nadal three previous times, losing all three. This spring, the Swede faced either Nadal or Roger Federer early in the competitions. Each time Soderling lost. Of course with Nadal in his path at Roland Garros, most people figured Soderling would end up on a plane headed home this afternoon.
"I try to keep telling myself before the match that, you know, I have to believe," Soderling said. "Of course I told everybody this is the biggest challenge you can have, I think, playing Nodal, the best clay-court player of all time on clay, best-of-five sets in Roland Garros."
In the third set after Soderling broke and held to go up 5-3, Nadal looked and played worried. His down-the-line backhand flip winners have stunned fans for years, but today he couldn't hit the shot. On one point, instead of keeping his eyes on the ball he pulled up his head and followed the shot over the net. Where would it land? In? Out? Out! Nadal's expectations were negative. He was not in rhythm. He was a mile outside the zone.
Even with a break early in the fourth, Nadal could not make it stick losing the next game at love.
Robin Soderling had every excuse in the world to get shaky hands during the fourth-set tiebreak. He blew the one in the second set as he committed so many unforced errors he practically handed the set to Rafa. But the six-foot-four Swede kept his head down and mind on the points at hand. Ironically, he won the tiebreak mimicking the score of the second 7-2. Only this time, he dethroned the King of Clay.
"During the whole match, I kept telling myself this is just another match," Soderling began. "I don't care if it's the fourth round in French against Nodal, this is just like any match. That helped me.'"
The French crowds take the gateaux when it comes to loyalty. Throughout the match they cheered for Soderling predominantly, which in itself is not wrong. People can cheer for whomever they like. However, Rafa has endeared himself to the French over the last four years. He has amazed them with his tennis prowess, his humility in victory, and his attitude on and off the court. So for them to cross the net and switch allegiance in one match's time is astonishing and regretful.
Ana Ivanovic's loss to #9 seed Victoria Azarenka today wasn't as much of a shock, when compared to Nadal's loss. Before the tournament began, her camp was on the fence whether to let her play. Her right knee has been problematic. She hadn't had much match play. And, she hadn't won a tournament since she hoisted the trophy here in Paris last year.
Today her service toss caused problems and her usual competitive nature started out sharp but faded until the end of the second set when it looked as if she might break back and force Azarenka to serve out the match. Unfortunately for Ivanovic, this didn't happen.
"I felt really good in the beginning," Ivanovic began.
Ivanovic mentioned in her press conference that she began to feel dizzy half way through the fourth game, but admitted that her opponent played well.
"She definitely has the potential," Ivanovic said of Azarenka. "She has been playing really well lately."
Across the net Victoria Azarenka took advantage of everything the Serbian hit her way and turned them around to her advantage. Azarenka remained aggressive and focused on winning points one at a time.
"I was very consistent today and very aggressive," Azarenka said. "I didn't let her play her game, which she normally does. I was just being I think too aggressive."
Azarenka will play Dinara Safina in the quarterfinals. So far, Safina has dropped five games in four rounds. Today, she defeated Frenchwoman Aravane Rezai.
With the four-time defending champion out of this year's French Open, the draw opens for others. Rafael Nadal favors Roger Federer to win the title. Whoever does will fill big shoes.
To brush off Nadal's loss as something that was bound to happen, or that he must have been tired, or it was windy, is to negate the high level of tennis Robin Soderling demonstrated. It also diminishes the depth of Nadal's accomplishments here at Roland Garros -- four consecutive titles. Yes, Bjorn Borg won five times in a row and six total. However, the game of tennis has changed since Borg's victories in the 1970s. Simple finesse and good footwork don't win any Grand Slam nowadays, let alone the most difficult slam of them all -- Roland Garros.
Rafael Nadal was the King of Clay, and is still considered by most to be the sovereign on the terre battue. His love of the game. His love of red clay. His unflinching commitment to improving himself on court. Those qualities cannot be forgotten simply because he is out of the championship this year. He will not have a chance at a "real" Grand Slam this year; and, Rafael Nadal never thought he would win one anyway. Too many variables stood in his way, as he said.
This Grand Slam champion will brush himself off and move on. He will continue to fight because that's who he is and that's what he knows. He will be missed next week.
Earlier Columns from this Event:
May 30, 2009 French Open Coverage: Draw Opens as Djokovic Falls In Three
May 29, 2009 French Open Coverage: What's Up With All That Noise!
May 28, 2009 French Open Coverage: The Shifting Clay of Roland Garros
May 27, 2009 French Open Coverage: The Heart of a Champion
May 26, 2009 French Open Coverage: American Women in Paris
May 25, 2009 French Open Coverage: Sharapova Fights On, Nadal and Federer Cruise
May 24, 2009 French Open Coverage: Bienvenue au Paris