Rafael Nadal and Robin Soderling after their French Open match on May 31, 2009 at Roland Garros Stadium in Par…Read More
Two-time Grand Slam finalist Robin Soderling says Spaniard still the hot favourite for French Open if the Slam goes ahead later this year
MUMBAI: For two years in succession, he came within one win of becoming a Grand Slam singles champion. The amazing form he produced during those two seasons also saw him soar to a career high World No. 4 in the ATP rankings.
But to tennis fans the world over, Robin Soderling will always be remembered in just one way – the first man ever to beat Rafael Nadal at the French Open!
The famed Spaniard had built a legendary aura on the red dirt by virtue of having never lost in 31 previous matches at Roland Garros, when unfancied Soderling famously stunned the then four-time defending champion 6-2, 6-7(2), 6-4, 7-6(2) in a fourth round clash in 2009.
“Of course it’s nice to be part of tennis history. Even today, people come up to me on the streets, or people I know, and at least two-three times a week I speak about this match, which is nice of course,” says Soderling in a telephonic chat with TOI from Stockholm. “Everyone remembers where they were sitting when they saw the match, when they heard the news.”
For 10 years, the Swede could lay claim to being the only player to have tasted victory against Nadal at the French Open until he was joined by current men’s World No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who halted Nadal’s 39-match winning run in the quarterfinals of the 2015 edition. But Soderling’s win stands out to such an extent that he often has to correct people that the bragging rights are no longer his alone. “It’s crazy that many people that watch a lot of tennis, they still think he (Nadal) only lost one match. Many times I have to say ‘no, well he lost to Djokovic also’. It’s still unbelievable, but I’m not the only one’,” he says.
A couple of years after the upset, Nadal, in his autobiography, revealed how he was battling knee issues going into the 2009 French Open which would eventually also see him pull out from defending his Wimbledon crown. Only last week, French player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga added further intrigue over Nadal’s physical state at that time, claiming the Majorcan was hindered by a bad throat when he succumbed to Soderling. Has such talk ever bothered the 35-year-old Swede?
“No, I wouldn’t say so. Of course, I hear about it. I even heard what Tsonga said. But I think, losing a match, there’s always explanations.
“Since it’s such a big match, or it was such a big shock that Rafa lost, there’s always going to be people speaking about it. I don’t know why Tsonga said it, I have no idea. For sure, during my career, I gave up a couple of times during matches, but I always felt, that if I step on court, I was there to win the match. So I’m not really bothered by it,” says Soderling who was forced into early retirement in 2015 due to a prolonged bout of mononucleosis.
“One of my strengths when I played was that I was really focused on my own game. And especially with this match, I remember it was a really good match from my side.
“I was really in the zone. I think many tennis players can relate to the time when you’re really in the zone. All you see is the court and the ball. You don’t hear the crowd, and that was one of the one of the days.
“It would have been a lot tougher for me to beat him if I started thinking about ‘Okay, is he injured, is he not playing well, is he doing something wrong?'”
That historic encounter at Court Philippe Chatrier certainly wasn’t their only memorable meeting. Two years earlier at Wimbledon, they faced off in a spicy third round battle which stretched over three days before Nadal finally prevailed in five sets. Those who witnessed it would surely remember Soderling getting under Nadal’s skin by mimicking his quirky habit of tugging at his shorts at the start of the fifth set, while the Spaniard was preparing to serve.
It’s not an act the Swede looks back on with pride, though he says Nadal’s tendency to take his time between points had put him off. “What I did now, looking back, maybe it was stupid to do it on Court One in Wimbledon in front of a lot of people, and I wouldn’t maybe do it today. I’ve matured a little bit.
“When I did it, I had to wait for him many, many times. You know Rafa is really slow. He takes his time in comparison and that was a really intense and long match with a lot of rain delays,” Soderling recalls.
Despite the incident, which was followed by a cold handshake at the end of the match, Soderling maintains his respect for Nadal has never been up for debate. “I always respected Rafa as a tennis player and what he did for the sport. What all three of those top guys, Djokovic, Federer and Nadal, what they did for the sport of tennis is just unbelievable.
“I was always respecting all the players, but I never tried to over respect someone even if they were number one. I think that was really important.
“Today, I have seen many good players, they go on the court to play Novak or Rafa, and you can almost see that they don’t really believe that they can win,” he says in a blunt assessment of the next generation of players.
Though Soderling himself didn’t lack belief on the day he bludgeoned 61 winners in that astounding upset of Nadal, he would eventually fall short in the 2009 French Open final against Roger Federer. The following year at Roland Garros, the Swede would experience the reverse when he ended the Swiss great’s reign in the quarterfinals only for Nadal to avenge the previous year’s loss with a comfortable win in the final.
“I just wish I could have beaten them both one year, that would have been nice. Then I could have lost the year after in the first round, no problem,” Soderling quips.
If he could go back in time and play one of those two finals again, which would he choose?
“Oooh! I would probably choose to play Roger again. Against Roger the first year, I was physically feeling well, I was playing well, but mentally I wasn’t really ready. Everybody spoke about Roger and he played I don’t know how many Grand Slam finals before that one. That was the first Grand Slam final for me and I was really not experienced enough.
“Against Rafa the year after, I think mentally I was, for sure, ready to win a Grand Slam. And I believed in myself, but that had been a more physically demanding year. I was really tired. Again, to beat Rafa, I would have had to play the way I did the year before and unfortunately, I didn’t reach that level and then he was just too good. So, yeah, if I could play one again, I would probably play against Roger,” he says.
The French Open is usually the focus of the tennis world at this juncture of the season. Had it not been for the coronavirus pandemic, Nadal may well have been closing in on a jaw-dropping 13th title. As far as Soderling is concerned, however, the 19-time Grand Slam champion will still be the man to beat if the clay court major does indeed take place this year in its rescheduled late September-early October slot.
“I don’t really think that it will change anything. Of course, Dominic Thiem is playing really well, Novak is extremely difficult to beat on any surface, but if I just had to pick one player, I would say Rafa. And that might be the case the next year also and the year after, you never know.
“He won 12 times, but it’s possible that he could win 13 or 14 times. It’s kind of actually likely, which is just crazy,” says Soderling, Sweden’s current Davis Cup captain.
Should it go that way, he will be only too happy to keep reliving the tale of his giant-killing heroics of 2009 when approached by passers-by on the streets of Stockholm!