Nadal, and the world, wonder what went wrong

PARIS (Reuters) - For the last four years Rafael Nadal has enjoyed the same birthday present -- a glittering French Open crown.

Rafael Nadal of Spain plays a shot during his match against Robin Soderling of Sweden at the French Open tennis tournament at Roland Garros in Paris May 31, 2009. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

This year, though, when he wakes up on Wednesday to celebrate his 23rd birthday, for once not in a Paris hotel bed, the Spaniard will be nursing his ego, scratching his head and still wondering what went wrong.

So is the rest of the sporting world.

This was not meant to happen. Never before beaten at the citadel of claycourt tennis, Nadal fell to unassuming Swede Robin Soderling in one of the biggest tennis upsets ever.

Was it tactics? Was it fatigue? Overconfidence, or just one of those things?

“I need to face the fact I didn’t play well this week. When I practised this morning I felt good. I felt very good, but it wasn’t the case during the match,” analysed Nadal after his 6-2 6-7 6-4 7-6 humbling.

Before Sunday, though, there was nothing to suggest he was not playing well.

When Nadal flattened former world number one Lleyton Hewitt in the third round for the loss of just five games, most thought Soderling would simply turn out to be another sitting duck on the Mallorcan’s unstoppable charge towards a record fifth consecutive Roland Garros title.

But Soderling had other ideas.

He paid scant regard to the fact that in his 31 previous encounters in Roland Garros, Nadal had never been defeated.

He ignored the fact that Nadal had never been pushed to a fifth set at Roland Garros.

He blotted out how Nadal had won 32 consecutive sets at the Open dating back to the 2007 final.

Instead, he walked out on Philippe Chatrier Court believing in himself and soon had the rest of the world following his every move in a trance-like state.

The groundwork for Nadal’s spectacular downfall was provided by Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer two weeks ago in Madrid.

In perhaps the most high-intensity three-set match witnessed on clay, Djokovic did everything right except convert one of the three match points he earned during a heart-stopping semi-final against the world number one.

The Serb employed brilliantly crafted passive-aggressive tactics to keep Nadal on court for more than four hours.

Federer then pounced to finish Nadal off in the final.

Having studied his mistakes from last year’s Paris final mauling, when the Swiss won just four games, Federer used a high-risk strategy in which he kept the rallies short, ran around his backhand and threw in a few slices and drop shots.

That was exactly what Soderling did on Sunday.

He surprised Nadal by mixing up his play and adopting an aggressive approach.

He belted forehands whether there was an opening or not and surprised Nadal by often charging to the net.

So surprised was the Spanish warrior, that he was often left hitting through the air and rolling in dirt as he tried in vain to chase down Soderling’s winners.

Although it meant 59 unforced errors flew off the Swede’s racket, it paid dividends as he also fired 61 winners -- 28 more than Nadal.

What was so incredible was that he maintained that surreal level for four astonishing sets.

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