on June 1, 2009 by in Uncategorized, Comments (0)

King Nadal’s Paris crown finally slips

PARIS (Reuters) – A seismic shock rippled through Roland Garros at 17.54 pm on Sunday when the unthinkable finally happened — claycourt king Rafael Nadal’s aura of invincibility was pierced, punctured and finally ripped apart.

Robin Soderling was barely known outside tennis circles but the disarming Swede played the match of his life to humble arguably the greatest ever claycourter 6-2 6-7 6-4 7-6 in the fourth round of the French Open after 3-1/2 hours of high drama.

Soderling left the world number one and a capacity crowd on Philippe Chatrier Court flabbergasted as he handed the Spaniard his first defeat at Roland Garros and left his dreams of a record fifth consecutive title in tatters.

A disbelieving crowd watched in fascination as the 22-year-old was finally brought to his knees when his attempt at an angled volley looped wide.

As Soderling sealed the champion’s fate, the 23rd seed stretched his arms wide open to lap up the applause from the hollering fans before hurling his racket high into the stands.

On the other side of the net, a forlorn Nadal was left to digest his first defeat in 32 matches at the claycourt major.

“This is not a tragedy, losing here in Paris. It had to happen one day,” said Nadal, who had not lost a set here since the 2007 final against Roger Federer.

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

Soderling added: “This is for sure the biggest moment so far of my career. I couldn’t even dream of this before the match, so I will remember this match for the rest of my life.”

The result was the biggest upset in the sport since a then little-known Federer snapped Pete Sampras’s 31-match winning streak at Wimbledon in the fourth round in 2001.

On a bad day for champions, women’s holder Ana Ivanovic also bade an early farewell but her exit almost went unnoticed as Paris buzzed with the news of Nadal’s demise.

The eighth-seeded Serb surrendered her French Open crown with a whimper when she was outclassed 6-2 6-3 by Belarussian Victoria Azarenka. The 19-year-old set up a quarter-final date with champion-in-waiting Dinara Safina.

SPARKLING FORM

The Russian top seed’s headlong charge toward a maiden grand slam title showed no sign of running out of steam when she flattened Aravane Rezai 6-1 6-0.

Men’s third seed Andy Murray was also in sparkling form as he strung together four successive wins on his least favorite surface for the first time by stamping out the challenge of Croatia’s Marin Cilic with a 7-5 7-6 6-1 victory.

Murray let out a big yawn as he walked on to court but it was Cilic who was soon wishing he had stayed in bed when 40 unforced errors flew off his racket to help the Scot on his way.

Little did he know that just a few hours later the biggest obstacle in his path to the final would be cleared. With fourth seed Novak Djokovic also out, the Briton will fancy his chances of facing three-times runner-up Federer in the final.

Maria Sharapova reached the last eight for the first time since 2005 with a 6-4 0-6 6-4 victory over China’s Li Na and her fellow Russian Nikolay Davydenko completed a bad day for the Spaniards.

The 10th-seeded Davydenko beat number eight Fernando Verdasco 6-2 6-2 6-4 and his next task will be to try to knock Soderling off cloud nine.

When Nadal had arrived in Paris, his run to a fifth successive final had almost been a forgone conclusion, with the real race being to see who would face him in the final.

“He’s a machine,” “he’s unstoppable” were just some of the phrases tossed around by the other 127 men who made up the draw.

One person who was not so sure was Elena Dementieva.

When the Olympic champion claimed on Saturday “he looks tired to me … I think it’s going to be a tough challenge for him to win this time,” pundits and fans squealed in laughter.

No one knew she would be proved right just 24 hours later.

As Soderling stepped out for battle, the numbers were stacked against him.

The Swede had captured three career titles, Nadal’s total stood at 36. Soderling had a 48-39 win-loss record on clay, Nadal’s was more than three times better at 179-15. Most notably, he had a 0-3 record against Nadal and took only one game off him when they faced off a month ago in Rome.

But Soderling paid scant regard to the stats and soon had the Spaniard on the run.

The first set disappeared in a blur for Nadal, who surrendered it by scooping a backhand into the net.

The Spaniard rebounded in the only fashion he knows how and swiftly went for the jugular to break for a 2-1 lead when his screaming backhand had Soderling flailing wildly. But a diving volley winner in the 10th game drew Soderling level.

A pumped-up Nadal had enough of being pushed around by a trespasser who had never made it past round three here and streaked through the tiebreak 7-2.

Soderling had Nadal rolling around in the dirt as he chased the ball in vain during much of the third set.

With his pink shirt, dark pirate pants and yellow bandana caked in clay, Nadal swiped a backhand long to go down a break at 4-3. Three games later, Nadal knew he would have to go to five sets for the first time in Paris if he was to stay alive.

Soderling had other ideas.

(Editing by Sonia Oxley, To query or comment on this story email sportsfeedback@thomsonreuters.com)