"I kept telling myself, this is just another match. Regardless if it is the fourth round against Rafael Nadal"
- Robin Soderling
Did anyone happen to hear my squeal of delight when I learned that Spain's Rafael Nadal - the number one men's tennis player in the world - had been knocked out of the French Open yesterday?
Sweden's Robin Soderling achieved what Roger Federer has failed four years in a row to do, beating Nadal 6-2, 6-7, 6-4, 7-6 and it was beyond impressive. More about the match in a bit. I'd like to set this encounter up a little, as these two players have a bit of colorful history.
Nadal met Robin Soderling en route to the 2007 final of Wimbledon. The scoreline was 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 4-6 and it was the beginning of the fifth set - a very tight match which Soderling looked very capable of winning.
Let me begin by explaining that Rafael Nadal is famous for his "ticks" on court. Various things he does as he sets up to serve with the whole routine pushing the time limits for serving - one notorious tick being that he digs at his briefs from behind. Yes. And on every serve. It's pretty unsightly to watch, but apparently it is something that he can't stop - kind of like an OCD habit? So not only does he have this really gross habit, but add to that the fact that he takes way too much time for all of these ticks, and you often get frustrated players (and viewers) watching this. He disrupts the flow of the match. Granted, what he does is mostly within the rules. But if it isn't a deliberate tactic, it sure feels like it sometimes.
Anyway, during this match, Nadal had, in his usual manner, made Soderling wait to receive serve and had also held up Soderling's serve for his little routines. A player can delay the server by raising his hand to indicate he isn't ready to receive serve, which Nadal often does and then takes his time settling. Again, within the rules, but not often done - at least so regularly. Some consider this a bit of gamesmanship. Well, Soderling at one point looked ready to receive the serve, but apparently needed to run back to his chair for something...put his hand up, but Nadal didn't see it and nearly served before he realized Soderling wasn't ready. Nadal gave a disgusted head shake. Yeah, can you believe it? Neither could Soderling. Watch what he does in response in this clip from the match.
So, if you watched the clip you'll see that Soderling mocked the digging at the briefs. I watched this live and I have to tell you, I laughed. Of course. And then I also knew for certain that Soderling had just lost the match. Nadal glared at him and found a new inspiration, and it was over pretty quickly after that. This little exchange has not been forgotten by avid tennis fans, and NBC showed it yesterday during the match to show this history between the players.
I did watch the match on NBC when it was broadcast in taped delay, and Soderling was sublime. He has a lot of firepower - strong, powerful shots that he kept deep in the court, which is a must against Nadal. That and his great movement continually seemed to have Nadal on his back foot. Amazing. Nadal generally is like a human backboard. He gets everything back and wears his opponents down. But Soderling jumped on seemingly every short ball and did something special with it. His serve was very effective as well. And here's the thing...just like when playing Federer in the years past, players have a tendency to lose belief when playing Nadal. And who can blame them? If you've ever seen Rafael Nadal play on clay, you would understand how a sense of futility can creep into his opponent's consciousness. That's a killer right there, and there was no sign of this from Soderling. He just kept his cool and didn't seem to show the nerves that this occasion could bring out. That all by itself is just incredible.
Look what all of that earned for Soderling: his place in the record books for ending Nadal's four year undefeated reign at Roland Garros, and great chance to take this prized title for himself. Ending Nadal's streak is a very big deal in tennis even if he doesn't win another match at this Open. I hope he does. He certainly deserves some more success after this historic defeat. I want Roger to win this, but I'd be more than happy to celebrate a title for the man who beat The Clay King in his house.
ADDED: I'm being a bit obnoxious about Nadal in this blog, if you can't tell. And part of that is just sports, you know? Rooting against the guy who you consider to be your fave's nemesis. It really is a compliment to Rafael Nadal underneath it all, and as I have many friends who are great fans of his, I really have no desire to rub salt in this wound. I really hope they don't read this. If you are a big sports fan you really do understand how this stuff hurts, and I certainly have no wish to add to any of my friends' pain.