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 on 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 six-foot-three worth of power, transformed Nadal’s career mark at Roland Garros from a best-ever 31-0 to 31-1 with 3 1/2 hours of assertive, and sometimes 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.”
Simply put, Soderling’s 6-2, 6-7 (2), 6-4, 7-6 (2) victory over the No. 1-seeded Nadal 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 never had won so much as a third-round match at any major tournament before this one.
“I kept telling myself, ‘This is just another match,’” Soderling said.
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 in April. But this time, Nadal was a half-step slower than usual — he tumbled to the ground in the third set, smearing clay all over his pink shirt and charcoal shorts — and Soderling was lights-out good.
Soderling finished with 61 winners, 28 more than Nadal, and won the point on 27 of 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 around the grounds mere footnotes, from reigning French Open women’s champion Ana Ivanovic’s exit in a 6-2, 6-3 loss to No. 9 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, to Maria Sharapova’s latest three-set victory, to the Williams’ sisters loss in doubles.
It was a day of mixed results for Toronto’s Daniel Nestor.
Nestor and Serbian Nenad Zimonjic, the top seeds in men’s doubles, beat German Christopher Kas and Rogier Wassen of the Netherlands, 6-0, 6-3 in a third-round match. But he and Russian Elena Vesnina lost second-round mixed doubles contest.
All that really mattered on this day, though, was Nadal’s ouster. In the first round, he broke Bjorn Borg’s record of 28 straight French Open wins by a man. In the second, he eclipsed Chris Evert’s overall tournament record of 29.
“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. Looked at another way, the pressure on Federer to finally win the championship at Roland Garros ratchets far higher. Federer lost to Nadal in each of the past three finals at Roland Garros, and in the 2005 semifinals, too.
“If one guy deserves it,” Nadal said, “that’s him.”
Federer was the last player to even take a set off Nadal at the French Open — all the way back in the 2007 final. Nadal’s streak of 32 consecutive sets won at Roland Garros, second only to Borg’s record of run 41 from 1978-81, did not last long Sunday.
When Nadal missed a backhand wide, then another into the net, Soderling broke him for the second time to take the first set. That, Soderling would say, was key.
“I felt if I can win one set,” he said, “why not the second one, and then the third one?”
Soderling did come within two points of winning the second set, when he led 6-5 and Nadal was serving. Nadal held there, though, then ran away with the ensuing tiebreaker, helped by six unforced errors by Soderling.
That was certainly a moment when Soderling could have folded. Instead, he showed fortitude.
“It takes a serious mind to realize, that, ‘Hey, listen, I just lost the second set 7-6 to Nadal, but I am so much better today, and I’ve just got to stay with him.’ And that’s, I think, what Robin exactly did,” Wilander said.
Nadal’s high-bouncing forehands didn’t bother Soderling. Soderling’s deep groundstrokes and booming serves troubled Nadal, who stood way behind the baseline. When Soderling served out the third set at love, Nadal had lost two sets in a single French Open match for the first time.
As the fourth-set tiebreaker began, spectators at Court Philippe Chatrier serenaded the underdog with choruses of “Roh-bean!” Others responded, “Ra-fa!” Later, Nadal termed the extra support for Soderling “sad.”
Soderling moved ahead 6-1, but Nadal’s forehand winner erased the first match point of his French Open career. On the second, Nadal’s volley landed wide, the final point of his lone loss at Roland Garros.
“We know that when we walk on the court, we can either win or lose,” Nadal said. “No one remembers defeats in the long run. People remember victories. So I have to move forward.”
He turns 23 on Wednesday, and noted he’s accustomed to celebrating his birthday at Roland Garros.
Not this year. About 75 minutes after the match ended, Nadal left the locker-room with a couple of gym bags and a white plastic trash bag with other belongings.
He paused at the tournament’s player support desk for goodbye kisses, then walked past the transportation desk and said, “Ciao. Merci.” Nadal slid into a black sedan that whisked him through the complex’s green gate — departing one week earlier than he expected, one week earlier than every other year he’s been here.