- The Washington Times - Monday, June 1, 2009

PARIS | For 31 matches, Rafael Nadal ruled the red clay of Roland Garros, boasting an unbeaten record and an unbreakable will.

For 31 matches, this was his surface, his tournament, his time.

For 31 matches, dating to his debut May 23, 2005, Nadal never truly was challenged - much less defeated - at the French Open, allowing him to win four consecutive titles and close in on becoming the first player in history with five in a row.

Until Sunday. Until the fourth round of the 2009 French Open. Until Robin Soderling, a 24-year-old from Sweden with a bit of an attitude and 6-foot-3 worth of power, transformed Nadal’s career mark at Roland Garros from 31-0 to 31-1 with 3 1/2 hours of spectacular play.

“Well, that’s the end of the road, and I have to accept it,” Nadal said. “I have to accept my defeat as I accepted my victories: with calm.”

Soderling’s 6-2, 6-7 (2), 6-4, 7-6 (2) victory against the top-seeded Nadal probably rates as one of the biggest upsets in tennis history. Not sure? Set aside all of Nadal’s bona fides for a moment - the dominance on clay, the six Grand Slam titles, including at Wimbledon and Australian Open - and focus on this: The 23rd-seeded Soderling had never won a third-round match at any major tournament before this one.

“I kept telling myself, ‘This is just another match,’ ” Soderling said. “That helped me.”

Nadal won all three of their previous meetings, including a contentious match at Wimbledon in 2007, and a 6-1, 6-0 rout on clay at Rome on April 30. But this time, Nadal was a half-step slower than usual - he tumbled to the ground late in the third set, smearing clay all over his neon pink shirt and charcoal shorts - and Soderling was lights-out good, going for the lines and putting the ball right where he wanted over and over.

Soderling finished with 61 winners, 28 more than Nadal, and won the point on 27 of his 35 trips to the net.

“One of those days,” Nadal said. “I had someone playing very well in front of me.”

The stunning result rendered the rest of Sunday’s action mere footnotes: reigning women’s champion Ana Ivanovic’s exit with a 6-2, 6-3 loss to No. 9 Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova’s latest three-set victory, the Williams sisters’ loss in doubles.

All that mattered on this day was Nadal’s ouster.

“Everybody’s in a state of shock, I would think,” said Mats Wilander, a three-time French Open champion who works with Soderling as Sweden’s Davis Cup captain. “At some point, Nadal was going to lose. But nobody expected it to happen today and maybe not this year. Now it’s a matter of there’s a tournament to be won.”

The biggest beneficiary might be Roger Federer, the 13-time major champion whose resume is missing only a French Open title. Federer lost to Nadal in each of the past three finals at Roland Garros.

“If one guy deserves it, that’s him,” Nadal said.

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