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Tuesday, May 31, 2011
The effect of beating Nadal in Paris

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

PARIS -- Two years ago this Tuesday, Robin Soderling authored one of the greatest upsets in tennis history.

The smooth-swinging Swede ended Rafael Nadal's 31-match winning streak at Roland Garros in a fourth-round match. Soderling, the unheralded No. 23 seed, came out of virtually nowhere to reach the final. He remains the only man to beat Rafa at Roland Garros.

Much has been made of how that victory altered the landscape in men's tennis. It allowed Roger Federer, who beat Soderling in the final, to complete his career Grand Slam. It may have provided the motivation that carried Nadal to one of the greatest seasons ever, his three-Slam campaign of 2010.

But what about the effect on Soderling himself? It was, in retrospect, quite amazing, particularly on clay, a surface that would not seem to complement his powerful game.

On Wednesday, we shall see how far, exactly, Soderling has come. After Monday's 6-2, 6-3, 7-6 (5) victory over Frenchman Gilles Simon, he will meet Nadal in the quarterfinals of the French Open. It is Soderling's third consecutive trip to the quarters here -- not even Rafa can say that.

The on-court interviewer, noting that Rafa had played some scratchy tennis of late, asked the No. 5 seed if he thought the defending champion would return to form.

"I hope not," he said, laughing. "Everybody knows what he can do. I will have to play my best match. Hopefully, I can stay a few extra days."

Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal's only loss at Roland Garros came versus Robin Soderling in 2009.

In the six-plus seasons before the Rafa breakthrough, Soderling had a 45-39 record on clay, which works out to a pedestrian .536 winning percentage. Further, he hadn't won a clay-court title, much less advanced to a final.

Since beating Rafa here, Soderling has gone 37-12 on clay, a blistering .755, won a title (Bastad) and reached four finals, including the past two at Roland Garros. Soderling was the first man to defeat defending champions here in consecutive years since Mats Wilander dispatched Yannick Noah in 1984 and Ivan Lendl in 1985.

"I think the whole tournament here, 2009, helped me a lot," Soderling said. "Before that tournament I never passed the third round in any Grand Slam. The third-round match against [David] Ferrer, I won a really good one. And then, of course, I won against Rafa in the fourth, which was great.

"After that I proved to myself that I could do well in Grand Slams, and it helped me a lot."

In this beautiful place, Soderling is utterly unafraid.

Over the last three years, believe it or not, he has won more matches here than anyone. Soderling (16), is followed by Federer (15) and Nadal (14). That will give you some confidence.

Watching on television, it is difficult to appreciate how heavy he hits the ball. But from a court-level seat at Suzanne Lenglen last week, it was, frankly, a revelation. In a first-round match against Ryan Harrison, Soderling was actually hitting through the court, something that isn't easy on clay. Although movement is hardly Soderling's signature strength, he rarely seems rushed. Following an enormous take-back, he smoothly powers through the ball; it usually goes where he aims it.

And the new Babolat balls they're using are said to be harder and smaller than last year's Dunlops. That might go a long way toward narrowing the gap between Soderling and Nadal.

He began the season as the hottest player on ATP World Tour, winning three titles in first two months -- in Brisbane, Rotterdam and Marseille. It all added up to a 17-1 start. Soderling split four matches in Indian Wells and Miami, but clay has rejuvenated his game; this is his fourth consecutive quarterfinal on clay.

Simon, who has lost 16 straight matches to top five players, offered little resistance. He did save six match points, but a backhand winner down the line gave Soderling the match and locked down his date with Rafa.

"I have to be mentally ready for a really tough match," Soderling said. "He's not going to give you anything. Against Rafa you have to fight for every point. I think against any player you will always have a couple of chances, but you won't have many. When you have the chance, you have to take them.

"I have good memories from this tournament. I played so well in the past, winning a lot of great matches. Every time I come back here it gives me a good feeling, gives me a lot of confidence."

The Marquis de Sade was a French aristocrat, who dabbled in philosophy and politics. But Donatien Alphonse Francois was more famous (infamous, really) for his concepts of freedom.

Well, say hello to the Marquis de Sod, the modern-day freedom fighter, trying to liberate the French Open from the tyranny of the six-year monopoly imposed on it by Nadal and Federer.

"I have to accept my defeats as I accepted my victories, with calm," Nadal said after he lost to Soderling.

Now the cool Swede must find the fire to defeat Nadal again.

"Here he won so many times," Soderling mused, "so he's really difficult to beat. But I think no one is unbeatable."

That doesn't seem like a completely unreasonable point of view. He's the only one who's ever done it here.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.