It would have been impossible to see this one coming.
After all, the King of Clay had dismissed this guy 6-1, 6-0 last month on clay in Rome. But maybe, when Federer demolished him a few weeks ago in the high altitude of Madrid, it was more of a harbinger than many of us acknowledged. Or perhaps it was the odd choice of pink he chose to be his signature color during this fortnight.
Whatever the case, Robin Soderling of Sweden pulled off one of the great upsets in the history of tennis - or any sport for that matter - when he dispatched four-time defending champion Rafael Nadal in four sets in the fourth round, arresting the extraordinary 31 match winning streak that Rafa had produced at the French Open.
How did the tall, talented, but occasionally impudent and erratic, Swede do it? Quite simply, he stuck with a no-holds-barred approach by ripping powerful, flat forehands with an eerie consistency and delivering on a high percentage of first serves. Soderling kept this up for the entirety of the match, save for a brief hiccup that cost him the second set tiebreaker. There have been many players who have battled Nadal close for a set on the red stuff. But to have accomplished this over the course of three sets was nothing short of extraordinary. It was textbook execution of a focused game plan.
And Nadal was clearly not himself. Whether this was caused by Soderling's power or just due to a bad day at the office we'll never know. But the Rafa today was more reminiscent of the way he played several years ago, before he turned into an all-court menace. Far too often, Nadal's groundstrokes failed to land beyond the service line and his serve, which though never a weapon has been much improved the last three years, let him down greatly as he wasn't able to generate enough free points with it.
In addition, Nadal uncharacteristically framed numerous forehands - something he wouldn't do for months at a time but occurred with disturbing frequency today. It may have been the Mallorcan's worst match in several years. Champions will have bad days. But this bad day just happened to coincide with the opponent having the match of his life.
Perhaps most illustrative of Nadal's futility on this cloudy Parisian afternoon was how awkward he looked running for a backhand, as he seemingly mistimed his steps and stumbled on the red dirt. Nadal look clumsy on clay? One would have laughed at such a proposition prior to today.
So what are the historical comparisons in the sport? There are none.
In the Open era, when a champion who has so dominated an event loses, it's always been to a great rival or otherwise superb player. Three examples come to mind - Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, all at Wimbledon. When Borg, going for this sixth title in a row, lost to John McEnroe in 1981, it was hardly a surprise, as many thought McEnroe had overtaken his great rival. Sampras had won three consecutive Wimbledons before being upended by eventual champion Richard Krajieck in 1996. Though Krajicek never was able to muster another major title, he was one of the three best grass court players in the world at the time. And of course last year, when Federer lost to Nadal in arguably the greatest match of all time, it was not unexpected.
But to lose to the 23rd ranked player in the fourth round as Rafa did today? Not to mention a player for whom Nadal has little respect for, ever since Soderling's mocking of Nadal's mannerisms at Wimbledon in 2007. A player to whom Nadal had never lost, and who is not some new talent, but a 25 year old at mid-career who had never progressed past the third round at Roland Garros. And this was on clay, not a fast indoor carpet. It's literally unprecedented.
So now, who does this favor? Obviously everyone left in the draw. But it appears that Andy Murray, the third seed and who was set to meet Nadal in the semifinals is the clear beneficiary of Nadal's premature loss. While Murray is not as proficient on the dirt as he is on hard courts or grass, he should make the final.
In the bottom half of the draw, Federer is the clear choice. If he gets past Tommy Haas on Monday as expected, he'll take on either Andy Roddick - yes, Andy Roddick has a chance to make the quarterfinals - or Gael Monfils in the round of eight. Neither should pose a serious threat. But Federer's semifinal opponent, likely fifth seed Juan Martin Del Potro or Frenchman Jo Wilfried Tsonga, could bring a load of trouble for Roger. If Tsonga does indeed reach the penultimate round, the partisan French crowds will play their part in attempting to deny the Swiss stylist the one title he craves more than any other. But predictions seem pointless now after Sunday's shock.
And what if Federer were to go on and capture the trophy next Sunday without having to beat Nadal? Would it be any less sweet for the soon-to-be father? I doubt it, but tennis writers and historians - yours truly - would surely vent their irritation at such an occurrence.
Next up for Rafa is the chance of defending his epic Wimbledon triumph from a year ago. In the post-match press conference on Sunday, Nadal stated that, "right now my preparation is for the swimming pool at my house." He admitted that, "I must say that at key moments I couldn’t take the opportunity because I was losing my calm."
He'll need that serenity and calmness if he is to repeat on the grass in London. One thing is certain - you won't see him clad in pink at Wimbledon, or ever again for that matter.
TENNIS FANS RIGHT TO BE ANGRY WITH NBC:
Tennis fanatics are full up with righteous indignation, as they were forced to either wait for NBC's taped version of the match or, as this writer did, listen to the match live on French Open radio. I felt as if I had been transported back to the 1950's before tennis was telecast. Granted, listening on my computer did have a certain bizarre acoustical intensity. but it didn't lessen my rage at the network for depriving fans of a historical moment in the sport.
NBC had the choice of airing the match exclusively and in doing so didn't allow the Tennis channel to air it live in their morning coverage. Why they did this escapes me. There are still only a small percentage of homes that carry the Tennis Channel and these subscribers are obviously passionate followers of the sport. So the audience NBC was losing was miniscule.