Rafael Nadal has an enviable record in the French Open. It is the stuff of legends. The records and numbers that he has accumulated in the French Open might never be broken. If Rafael Nadal wins the French Open for the 14th time, there might be a petition to either rename the center Court from Phillip Chatrier to Rafael Nadal court. Or, they may go one step ahead and rename the French Open as Rafael Nadal Open.
The Spaniard is the only player in history to have won 100 matches in the French Open. His record of 13 titles in the red clay of Roland Garros is unprecedented. However, in his 15-year playing career, he has suffered only two losses. The players who inflicted the losses on Nadal in the French Open are legendary in their own right. The players who defeated Nadal in Roland Garros are in a way legends.
One of the players could not go on to the big stage. The other is a bonafide great who can potentially overhaul Nadal. These are the stories of Robin Soderling and Novak Djokovic.
Nadal had already established a record by winning his first 31 matches in Roland Garros. After winning the next three games in 2009, it seemed that it would be business as usual for the Spaniard. He was facing Sweden’s Robin Soderling, who was seeded number 23 at that time.
Soderling had already been beaten 6-1,6-0 in Rome by Nadal. But, under guidance from his coach and former Swedish Tennis player Magnus Norman, Soderling had an interesting tactic. The Swede looked to keep Nadal behind the baseline, create space by pushing the Spaniard out wide and try keeping the ball as flat and accurate as possible. A big booming serve was also important.
The Swede had his booming serve, flat forehands and aggressive style caught Nadal off-guard in the opening set. He took it 6-2 to everyone’s surprise. Nadal recovered to level the match at one-set-all following a one-way tie-break. Soderling broke Nadal again in the third set and he won the match. The fourth set went into the tiebreaker. Soderling earned a mini-break before bringing up five match points at 6-1. Nadal’s fighting spirit saw him save the first of them with a forehand winner, but a forehand volley wide from the left-hander created history.
Soderling became the first man in history to beat Rafael Nadal in the French Open. The win would benefit Roger Federer greatly. The Swiss maestro defeated Soderling in the final in three sets to win his first and only French Open. Had Nadal not exited in the fourth round, Federer would have found it impossible to win the French Open.
“I had already beaten him on clay and I always liked to play him on clay. That was a really important match for me because after I beat him that was the first time I had reached the fourth round of any Grand Slam. That was something new. I proved to myself that I could pass the third round and I belonged with the top 16 players,” Soderling would tell Sky Sports years after his epic win.
After the blip in the 2009 French Open, Nadal ensured that normalcy would resume. He would win Roland Garros five consecutive times from 2010 to 2014. In 2015, Nadal was in top form to enter the quarterfinal. Nadal had lost only one set and that was to Jack Sock of the USA. In the quarterfinal, he was up against Novak Djokovic, who had not lost a set and was looking in prime form.
In a sublime display of Tennis, Djokovic not only beat Nadal, he thrashed him. Djokovic won the match in three straight sets 7-5,6-3-6-1. This remained the only time Nadal lost in straight sets at the French Open to a player. However, Djokovic could not win the French Open as he lost to Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland in the final in four sets.
The 2015 win against Nadal put Djokovic in a different pedestal. When he won the 2016 French Open following Nadal’s withdrawal due to a wrist injury in the third round, it put him in an elite company. Djokovic now has a superior head-to-head record against both Federer and Nadal. However, the Spaniard has a record of 19-7 against Djokovic on clay. Overall, in the head-to-head record, Djokovic still has a 29-28 advantage against Nadal.
Djokovic and Soderling do not have much in common. However, these two players are legendary for one thing. The achievement of beating Rafael Nadal in Roland Garros is truly a phenomenal achievement, especially considering that Nadal might be gunning for a record 14th French Open title in 2021.