He owed the unmistakable turning point of his career to the man facing him across the net, but that should really have fortified Robin Soderling rather better against those that seemed to alter the course of this match. After all, his breakthrough success against Rafael Nadal, in the French Open last year, had ignited a surge all the way to No 6 in the world rankings – one accelerated by another famous success in Paris last month against Roger Federer. Nadal did eventually avenge himself in the final there, but Soderling had bounded into the last eight here with such belligerence that neither man should have been too astonished when he raced into a 5-0 lead in the opening set.
A double-fault on his first break point had prompted horrified cries from Nadal's fans: "Vamos Rafa!" Soderling responded by detonating three aces at 135, 139 and 138 mph, and breaking Nadal a second time. As they retired to their seats, however, a murmur of amazement began to swell through the crowd as the scoreboard flashed the latest from Centre Court – showing Roger Federer match point down. During the next minutes it seemed impossible that the gladiators before us could be immune to the import of 15,000 gasps and shrieks from the adjacent arena. Soderling's homicidal serve suddenly faltered, yielding a double fault at break point, and while he ultimately finished off the set, 6-3, he suddenly seemed less certain about the opportunity presented both men by Federer's departure.
Afterwards he denied that the sensation on Centre Court had remotely distracted him. Nadal also professed indifference. "Sure, I saw that on the scoreboard," he said. "[But] it doesn't affect my game, for sure." If anything, however, the contagion of frailty infecting the Wimbledon aristocracy (Venus Williams had been beaten on this very court 24 hours earlier) should have emboldened Soderling that Nadal was vulnerable.
Instead, he fell to something of a sucker punch after a Hawk-eye reprieve presented him with break point in the first game of the second set. Nadal marched up to the umpire's chair and theatrically spaced out his hands, complaining that the "out" call had inhibited his stroke. His fans dutifully joined a din of protest, demanding a replay, and when Soderling blinked first in the next rally Nadal jumped into the air and pumped his fist. An ace to polish off the game urged the crowd into a new frenzy and, having orchestrated the moment, Nadal promptly broke serve and levelled the match, 6-3.
Now this would not be the first time these gentlemen have managed to goad each other. Soderling notoriously infuriated the world No 1 in losing a five-set slog here in 2007, mimicking his various tics in response to what he viewed as brazen time-wasting. And a somewhat malign undertone resurfaced after Soderling was broken in the third set. With Nadal due to serve at 5-4, Soderling requested a medical time-out so that he could have attention for a blister. If the timing was at all artful, it certainly paid off as Soderling retrieved the break and forced a tie-break. "It was hurting me quite a lot," he protested later. "It's better to have it fixed than play with it, don't you think?"
Regardless, it proved his final ruse. He never recovered from a wild miscue, before an open court, on the first point of the tie-break and limply surrendered the final set to lose 3-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-1.
It had been an entertaining match, pitting the Nordic behemoth against the swaggering matador. At one stage, Nadal trapped a high ball with his foot as insouciantly as David Villa himself. But Soderling, the only man ever to beat him at Roland Garros, could never discover the feet of clay disclosed by even the greatest grass champions this week.