Monday, June 1, 2009

King Rafa dethroned

The king is dead.

It is hard to believe the day has come. Rafael Nadal has been beaten at the French Open. He has owned this tournament since his first appearance in 2005. He had won four consecutive titles. He possesses the longest winning streak at the tournament of 31 consecutive matches, more than any other player in either men’s or women’s history.

It was simply one of the most remarkable streaks in sport. And it wasn’t that he had just won all of those matches, he had dominated them. It did not look like ending either, particular after the flogging he handed Lleyton Hewitt in the third round. Nadal had never been stretched to five sets at Roland Garros. He still hasn’t as Robin Soderling, a 24-year-old Swede who had never been past the third round at a Grand Slam, claimed the biggest upset in French Open history winning 6-2 6-7 6-4 7-6.

It had to happen at some stage. Few expected it to be now. And if it were to happen many would have predicted a five-set slog against one of the big four or perhaps a clay-court specialist but no one would have guessed Soderling.

The Swede’s highest world ranking is 15, in January of this year, and he is currently ranked 25. He has seven professional victories, four in ATP 250 Series events, essentially third tier tour stops, and three on the challenger circuit. In comparative terms to Nadal he is a lightweight. Yet in beating the Spaniard he played like a giant.

Nadal was never allowed to settle. Soderling played aggressively and was willing to take risks. The result was that the Swede dictated the points. This is not unusual. Nadal is often on the defensive against the likes of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray. The key to the Spaniard’s brilliance on clay is his ability to counterpunch. He scrambles from deep behind the baseline forcing his opponent to go for more and more and eventually make an error. Or alternatively, with a half-opportunity Nadal will make the most breathtaking counterattack with one powerful backhand before running around to the forehand side and fizzing away a winner.

On Sunday none of this eventuated. Soderling drove harder and harder. Soderling did make 59 unforced errors. Numbers, the like of which we’ve seen from Federer against Nadal, that would suggest a loss. But he made an incredible 61 winners. The majority of which cleaned the dusty lines on court Phillipe Chatrier. Soderling flattened out his forehand and stretched Nadal to limits he has never had to strive for. Likewise, the power generated off Soderling’s two-handed backhand simply blew the Spaniard away.

For as well as Soderling played, Nadal played every bit as poorly. He looked bedraggled and unsettled. The normally steely resolve that adorns his face was replaced by an expression of confused amazement as more and more returns missed the mark. His balance was also awry as he lost his feet on several occasions, a rare sight for Nadal fans, and his normally surgical-like forehand instead resembled that of a butcher.

But Nadal still scrapped, as is customary. After he lost the third set to trail two sets to one, you felt Soderling’s most important moment of the match was his first service game of the fourth. Sure enough Nadal broke him easily. Most fans watching on television would have been looking for a fast-forward button as a salivating fifth set loomed. But Soderling broke straight back and continued to hit the corners as he controlled the remainder of the set and the tie-breaker. It is undoubtedly the biggest win of the Swede’s career, and the worst loss of Nadal’s.

But the ramifications for the tournament are far greater. Nadal was $1.40 favourite at the start of the tournament, unheard of in Grand Slam tennis. Now the tournament is wide open. Novak Djokovic’s departure in the third round, which preceded Nadal’s failure, means only Federer and Andy Roddick remain as Grand Slam winners in the field.

Federer will never get a better chance to win the one Grand Slam title that has eluded him. Nadal has been his kryptonite, not only on the Parisian clay but also in the last two Grand Slam finals they have opposed each other at Wimbledon and Melbourne Park. His performances against Jose Acasuso and Paul Henri-Mathieu were hardly convincing but he would be a warm favourite with both bookies and punters. Soderling may have given the Swiss maestro the opportunity to stake his claim as the greatest of all-time.

The world number three Andy Murray has quietly gone about his business. His draw has opened up and his form on clay suggests he is a major threat.

Another threat may come from Russian Nikolay Davydenko, who dusted another left-handed Spaniard Fernando Verdasco on the same day Nadal fell. Davydenko has twice reached the semis at the French Open and is in the kind of form that makes him a genuine contender.

Other chances may come from South Americans Juan Martin del Potro and Fernando Gonzalez. Gonzalez, a Chilean, met Federer in the 2007 Australian Open final, whilst the Argentinean Del Potro is the world number five and one of the form players at present.

And you can’t discount local hopes Jo Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils, two enigmatic Frenchman with outstanding weaponry to boot.

And what of Soderling? Given the way he played against the best clay-courter of all-time suggests the championship could well be within his reach.

Nadal’s exit, as shocking as it is, has set up a fascinating French Open.

No comments: