Since he first set foot on the red clay of Roland Garros in 2005 he's pulled together a record thirty-one straight victories and has become the only man to beat in Paris. A few weeks ago Justin Gimelstob tweeted:
"Rafa wins the French Open unless he breaks both ankles. If he breaks just one, he still wins."
Today, both ankles seemingly intact, he walked off the court in defeat at the hands of Robin Soderling.
That's right -- Robin Soderling. Not Roger Federer, not Andy Murray, not even Novak Djokovic was able to dethrone the king. But in a serious case of David slaying Goliath, the twenty-fifth ranked Swede notched his very first win over the world #1 in the grandest of styles.
Soderling delivered nine aces and sixty-one winners, nearly double that of Nadal and sailed to a 6-2 victory in the first set. Though Rafa was able to come back in the second, he couldn't quite get his footing and dropped the next two sets.
Among other firsts, it was the only time he's ever lost a best-of-five match on clay.
Once I got over the initial shock -- okay, I'm still not over it -- I began to wonder if Rafa's early exit could open the door for Federer to finally take his first French Open title and ultimately surpass Pete Sampras in number of Grand Slam titles. But I think a lot of people are breathing a little easier now.
Sure Roger is on something of a roll, having upset Rafa earlier this month in Madrid. But Nikolay Davydenko, who easily sent Fernando Verdasco packing, certainly has an easier road to the semifinals, and both Andy Murray and Juan Martin Del Potro must like their chances if they make it to the final now.
There is a bigger implication to Rafa's loss though -- maybe the men's bracket is not quite as immovable as we thought. Nadal has such a huge lead over other opponents that losing in Paris early won't really affect his place at the top -- in fact he's already qualified for the year-end championships based on the points he's racked up this year. But there had been so much talk about Federer's game beginning to fall apart this year and Rafa's seeming indestructibility -- now on all surfaces. I don't think this turn of events is a signal that the tides are turning back, but surely other players now think they have a chance to make their own run for the top.
Incidentally it seemed to be a bad day for defending champs all around. Last year's women's titlist Ana Ivanovic also lost today, in straight sets to Victoria Azarenka who just earned her first Grand Slam quarterfinal. Though, to be honest, I'm surprised Ana made it this far at all -- other than a final apperance at Indian Wells, she hasn't been able to put together three straight wins at all this year. But some strong shots in earlier rounds makes the case that we shouldn't quite write her off just yet.
In any case, all is not lost -- it's only a few weeks before Wimbledon!
And good luck to all those left in Paris! It's gonna be a great fight!