PARIS (Reuters) - An unassuming Swede and his hammerhead forehand is starting to gain mythical status at Roland Garros because in nine years Robin Soderling remains the only man to have beaten Rafa Nadal at the French Open.
Over the seasons grand slam champions in the caliber of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Lleyton Hewitt, Juan Martin del Potro and Carlos Moya have all tried - and failed - to conquer the claycourt phenomenon.
Many have scrutinized the Soderling blueprint that first came to light in 2009 and tried to glean clues from it in order to crack the riddle of beating Nadal at the French Open.
If there is a solution lurking somewhere, Nadal has so far managed to keep it well hidden, as he illustrated on Friday when he delivered a soul-destroying five-set, four hour 37-minute, semi-final defeat to Djokovic.
The Serb had so wanted to win the Paris title to complete his collection of grand slam silverware and became only the third player to take at least two sets off the Spaniard in the French capital.
But two sets in a best-of-five match does not win matches.
The Parisian contest had more twists and turns than a Dan Brown thriller - including point penalties, a near tumble over the net, trick-shot mishaps, warnings for time wasting, angry outbursts and a fifth-set comeback from 4-2 down.
It is a match-up that had all the makings of a final but in the end, all an exhausted Djokovic could do was applaud Nadal’s gutsy never-say-die attitude.
“It’s been an unbelievable match to be part of but all I can feel now is disappointment. That’s it,” Djokovic, runner-up to the Spaniard 12 months ago, said following the 6-4 3-6 6-1 6-7(3) 9-7 defeat.
”I congratulate my opponent because he showed courage in the right moments and went for his shots. When he was break down in the fifth (set), he made some incredible shots from the baseline.
“That’s why he’s a champion. That’s why he’s been ruling Roland Garros for many years.”
Nadal’s fellow Spaniard David Ferrer is the only man left this year still with a chance of overthrowing the claycourt king.
But as the fourth seed has come off second best in their last 16 matches on red dirt, even Ferrer’s nearest and dearest are unlikely bet against a man whose Roland Garros record now stands at 58-1, with a 7-0 record in the finals.
If there was anyone who could have stalled Nadal’s relentless pursuit of capturing a record eighth Musketeers’ Cup, it was Djokovic.
He is the only man to have won at least three grand slam matches against Nadal and he also knew how to beat the Spaniard in five sets having won an epic five-hour 53 minute battle in last year’s Australian Open final.
But when it comes to sliding around for hour after hour on red clay, Nadal is an indefatigable force.
“I learned during all my career to enjoy suffering and these kind of matches are very special. You don’t have the chance to play these kind of matches every day,” said Nadal, who incredibly only came back to the tour in February after seven months out with a dodgy knee.
“So when these kind of matches happen, you suffer, but I really enjoy these moments, no? I really enjoy suffering.”
Unfortunately for Djokovic, Nadal also thrived on making his opponents suffer.
Djokovic tried to rattle Nadal with forehand winners, the Spaniard held firm.
Djokovic tried to throw Nadal off balance by throwing in some dropshots, the Spaniard chased them down.
Djokovic tried to engage Nadal at the net, the Spaniard hit back acute angled volleys.
“I lost the match after five hours. I wanted this title so much, so I am disappointed. That’s it,” said the 26-year-old Djokovic, who ultimately paid the price for producing 75 unforced errors.
”Nothing comes easy to you, you’ve got to earn it.
“I will come back to Paris, to this grand slam, and I will keep on trying to win it.”
But with Nadal having celebrated his 27th birthday earlier this week, Djokovic could be in for a very long wait.
Editing by Alison Wildey