Exit the King

Four-time champion Rafael Nadal tumbled out of the French Open, clearing a path for his archrival, Roger Federer
June 07, 2009

A definitiveanswer? It doesn't exist. But those certain that Robin S√∂derling's demolitionof world No. 1 Rafael Nadal on Sunday at Roland Garros wasn't the biggest upsetin tennis history—that it can't surpass 17-year-old Michael Chang's victoryover top-ranked Ivan Lendl at the 1989 French Open or unknown Peter Doohan'swin over two-time defending champion Boris Becker at Wimbledon in 1987—shouldconsider this: Before he stalked onto Court Philippe Chatrier to shatterNadal's once-unbreakable clay-court game into a million dirty pieces, theflinty Swede had a moment of pure panic. "What if I don't win onegame?" S√∂derling, 24, asked his coach, Magnus Norman. "What if Iembarrass myself?"

That was, ofcourse, a real concern. Nadal had rolled into Sunday's fourth-round matchhaving won four consecutive French Opens, having broken Bjorn Borg's record of30 straight wins in Paris—and having just crushed S√∂derling 6--1, 6--0 on clayin Rome. The 25th-ranked S√∂derling, meanwhile, is one of the tour's mostnotorious underachievers. After mocking Nadal's on-court tics during their epicfive-day, rain-delayed Wimbledon match in 2007, he is also the only player thewell-mannered Majorcan openly detests. "Not nice," Nadal describedS√∂derling then. "I asked around the locker room, and nobody has anythinggood to say about him."

Söderling hasalways been a troublesome opponent for Nadal. They went to five sets at thatwet Wimbledon, and Söderling held break points in each of Nadal's service gamesduring that 6--1 first set in Rome last month. Moreover, as former world No. 1Mats Wilander put it on Sunday evening, Söderling "doesn't really haverespect for other tennis players." The Nadal camp continually carps aboutthe Swede's insulting handshake etiquette and his refusal to say hello in thelocker room, but it's nothing personal. "Robin is like that againsteverybody," Wilander says. "He doesn't give a s---, basically."

Once past hisspasm of panic on Sunday, S√∂derling told himself as he walked onto the court, Ihave to believe. I have a chance, I have a small chance. Then he reverted togloriously obnoxious form, staring Nadal down after each stinging volley,pounding the top seed's usually concussive ground strokes, strutting around andfist-clenching as if he had nothing to lose. And he didn't, not after winningthe first set 6--2—the first time Nadal had dropped a set in Paris since 2007.Nadal surged to win the second-set tiebreaker, but S√∂derling kept blastingserves with abandon, and he hit his ground strokes so aggressively that Nadalhad to battle defensively from eight feet behind the baseline. Up 4--3, 30--15in the third set, S√∂derling ripped a charging forehand that sent Nadal tumblinginto the dust. He got up slowly, like a bully bullied at last. "I didn'twant him to make me run," S√∂derling said after closing out the match 6--2,6--7, 6--4, 7--6. "I tried to be the one that made him run."

When it was over,the two men shook hands coolly, as always, and in the postmatch pressconference Nadal was dismissive in a way he never is with other opponents."I didn't play great," he said. "I didn't play calm at [any]time.... That makes [it] easy [for him]."

The loss sentmassive shock waves through the men's game, similar to those felt after Nadalended Roger Federer's five-year reign at Wimbledon last year. It turns out thatNadal is vulnerable, too—and, stranger still, he doesn't seem to mind. He wasvisibly tense during his matches at Roland Garros this year, and he smiled andjoked after Sunday's defeat like a man released from a world of pressure."It's not the worst [loss] of my career," he said. "Not evenclose." Then he kissed a few French Open staffers on the cheek, threw hisbags into a tournament car and rolled out through the gates, tapping thebuttons on his cellphone.

Now it's someoneelse's tournament. With fourth seed Novak Djokovic gone, too—upset in the thirdround by Germany's Philipp Kohlschreiber—all eyes turned again to Federer andhis pursuit of history: his first French Open title and a record-tying 14thGrand Slam singles championship. Speaking of Federer, who rallied to beatGermany's Tommy Haas on Monday and would face Ga√´l Monfils in thequarterfinals, Wilander said, "If you can't win it now, then you'redefinitely not considered the best player of all time."

Söderling? Nobodygives him much of a chance. He won his tournament already, and he knows it:After he and Nadal left the court, Söderling went to a corner of the lockerroom he'd exited in fear nearly four hours before. His cool deserted him atlast; what he'd done hit him like a brick. He grabbed a towel so no one couldsee, then dropped his face into it and wept.

WELCOME BACK

Hail Maria

YOU KNOWsomething's wrong with your sport when one of its top practitioners doesn'tbother to pay attention. "I'm watching only men's tennis on TV,"fifth-ranked Jelena Jankovic said last Saturday.

Not that you canblame her: In the year since former No. 1 Justine Henin retired, the women'stour has been a rudderless ship: heeling this way and that, with acrew—including former No. 1 Jankovic, who lost to 41st-ranked Sorana Cirstea inthe fourth round at Roland Garros—incapable of producing "a boss," asHenin said last Thursday. "The tour needs a leader."

Voilà! Oneinstantly appeared. Former No. 1 Maria Sharapova, returning from a nine-monthlayoff following shoulder surgery, bulled through four rounds in Paris. Belovedby marketers for her looks, Sharapova's best quality is actually her hunger towin, which contrasts sharply with the Williams sisters' on-again, off-againapproach and Jankovic's dithering.

Sharapovarepeatedly called on her resolve to dispose of 25th seed Li Na of China onSunday. "She was fighting every point," Li said of the 102nd-rankedRussian. "I would say she's the top player in all the world."

Sharapova foundit too painful to watch the 2008 U.S. Open on TV, but by January she wasrushing home from practice to watch the Australian Open. That was bad news forher foes but great for the game: More than ever, Sharapova is looking to taketennis by the throat. "This is where I belong," she said.

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DROP SHOTS

A Fond Adieu

Farewell to Marat Safin, the abundantly talentedRussian who lost in the second round to French wild card Josselin Ouanna andthen declared this his last French Open. "I need to get out of this tenniscircuit," he said. "It's a little bit killing me." ... WTA chairmanLarry Scott, who is leaving to become the Pac-10 commissioner, wasn't able tomassage a merger between the men's and women's tours but calls the union"inevitable." ... Ana Ivanovic, the 2008 French Open champ, hasn't wona tournament this year and lost to Victoria Azarenka in straight sets in thefourth round.... Andy Roddick's six-match winning streak against French playersended when he lost in straight sets to Gaël Monfils (below) in the fourth roundon Monday.

TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by JESSICA KLUETMEIERDOWN AND OUT Nadal was kept on the defensive by the relentlessly aggressive Söderling (inset). PHOTOBOB MARTINLOOKING UP The women's tour is hoping a healthy Sharapova can again provide star power and some stability at the top of the rankings. PHOTOBOB MARTIN
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)