When you have stacked up 12 titles at a single Grand Slam, it’s almost inevitable the rarest of those rare defeats often get remembered. That’s what happened to Rafael Nadal, who suffered his first loss at the French Open in this summer of 2009 to an opponent who had won no titles on clay till then. A seeded but otherwise little-known Swede, Robin Soderling.
Nadal was the Man to Beat
Heading into the 2009 French Open, Nadal had been the overwhelming favourite to win it and it was to do with the Spaniard’s record on clay till then. In the four years preceding this 2009 encounter, Nadal had win-loss records of 48-2 in 2005, 24-0 in 2006, 31-1 in 2007 and 22-1 in 2009.
125 wins to four defeats, that had been Nadal’s extremely impressive win-loss.
An early loss at the hands of Gaston Gaudio in 2005 was probably on expected lines given the Argentine was a 2004 French Open winner himself, while it came as a bit of a surprise when he went down to Igor Andreev in Valencia. Still, it was a time before Nadal had won his first French Open.
In 2007, Nadal’s sole defeat came at the hands of Roger Federer in the Hamburg Open final, while in Juan Carlos Ferrero, another former French Open winner stunned him in the second round at Rome. Other than that, Nadal had looked invincible and looked good to win his fifth title at Roland-Garros in a row.
The 2009 French Open
Nadal was ranked number one at that time but his performance on clay had ensured even if he wasn’t the top player in the tennis rankings at that stage, he was the best on clay by some distance. It was Nadal at one, daylight and then the rest of the pack led by Roger Federer.
To give a further context to Nadal’s dominance at Roland-Garros, in the seven years leading up to his first French Open win, the tournament had seen six different winners with only Gustavo Kuerten managing to win it twice.
Nadal began his 2009 campaign in workman-like fashion.
Marcos Daniel, a Brazilian qualifier was dispatched in straight sets after a slow start but once he had found his momentum, Nadal crushed his next two opponents, Teymuraz Gabashvili and Lleyton Hewitt; the former winning seven games, the latter just five.
Soderling, on the other hand, was pushed to three tie-breakers in first two straight-set wins before he lost the opening set of the third round to David Ferrer. Ferrer, who would go on to win multiple ATP titles himself and make it to one French Open final in 2013 but never win a Grand Slam in his career, started off a favourite but Soderling turned things around in the next three sets.
That said, Soderling needed two more tie-breakers in that four-set victory to set up what seemed a regular fourth round match-up for Nadal – an opponent who had routed the Swede 6-1, 6-0 at Rome just the previous month.
Watch the Nadal-Soderling 2009 French Open Highlights Below
Nadal Falls to Shocking Loss
The last time Nadal had dropped a set at the French Open was way back in 2007 when Federer managed to take one off him in the final that year. Since that match, Nadal had gone on to win 32 sets in a row which included a 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 drubbing of the Swiss maestro in the 2008 French Open final.
Which is when Soderling broke Nadal in the fourth game of the first set and then doubled that up with another in the eighth, the shock on the crowd’s face was palpable. Nadal went on to lose the opening set and that set a marker for the rest of the encounter.
The Spaniard retaliated with an early break in the second set but lost his own while serving for the set at 5-4. Fortunately for Nadal, he regrouped quickly and scooped the tie-breaker to level the match at a set apiece and all seemed well with the world. Surely a straightforward victory from there on for Nadal, some would have thought.
The Soderling serve proved to be too stubborn to break and when he dished one out to Nadal in the seventh game of that set, shockwaves had begun to trickle all around. As hard as Nadal tried, he failed to break back and the 23rd seed was soon just a set away from an upset victory.
Nadal gained some control with another early break but the script from the second set repeated with Soderling breaking back and pushing the set into another tie-breaker. This time though, there was no respite for Nadal who failed to breach the Swede’s defences and fell to a 7-2 loss in it.
The tennis world had been turned upside down.
What They Said
Nadal admitted he had been below-par during the match despite having come into feeling quite good.
“When I practised this morning I felt good. I felt very good, but it wasn’t the case during the match. I didn’t play my best. I played very short and I couldn’t attack. I made it easy for him to play at his level. But I lost.”
Soderling emphasised on the importance of treating this match like any else he had participated in. He added:
“All the time, I was trying to play as if it was a training session. When I was 4-1 up in the (fourth set) tie-break, I started to believe.”
What Happened Next?
Soderling went on defeat the 10th seeded Nikolay Davydenko in the quarterfinals in straight sets before needing a five-setter to overcome Fernando Gonzalez to set up a final against Roger Federer.
Federer, who was a three-time finalist coming into this edition of the French Open, having lost to Nadal each time, got his chance to win the only Grand Slam missing from his trophy cabinet. He did so in style, clinching a straight-set victory over Soderling.
Soderling made it to another French Open final the following year, beating Federer in the quarterfinal en route but Nadal got the better of him this time in straight sets. Nadal went on another five-tournament title-winning run at Roland-Garros, before he lost his next match there, to Novak Djokovic in 2015.
Interestingly, Nadal and Soderling met again in 2009 at the year-ending ATP Finals and the Swede won their round-robin encounter in straight sets. In the following two years though, they played thrice more and Nadal defeated Soderling each time including twice at the French Open.