Nadal's loss opens up Major path for Murray

World No 1 in shock defeat as Briton wins in impressive style to reach quarter-finals
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The Independent Online

The 16th arrondissement here in the French capital does not lie on any of the Earth's major fault lines, which is probably just as well given the sporting earthquake that shook Roland Garros yesterday. Rafael Nadal had utterly dominated the French Open ever since he set foot on Parisian clay four years ago, but the world No 1's unbeaten 31-match run on these courts was ended by an unheralded Swede who had never previously gone beyond the third round of a Grand Slam tournament.

Until yesterday some journeymen might have considered suing had they been compared to Robin Soderling. However, less than two months after losing 6-1, 6-0 to Nadal in Rome, the 24-year-old world No 25 beat the Spaniard 6-2, 6-7, 6-4, 7-6 in arguably the greatest upset in the history of tennis.

Soderling has three minor titles to his name but has barely made a mark at Grand Slam level in the six years since he broke into the world's top 100. He is, nevertheless, a big man with a big game and his sledge-hammer ground strokes drove Nadal into the dust on the Philippe Chatrier Court that the 22-year-old Majorcan had made his own in winning the title here for the last four years.

The after-shocks will reverberate throughout the game. With Novak Djokovic, the year's second best clay-court player, also going out on Saturday, Andy Murray and Roger Federer in particular should be relishing their chances over the next week.

Murray, who was seeded to meet Nadal, in the semi-finals, was hugely impressive in brushing aside Marin Cilic 7-5, 7-6, 6-1 to earn a quarter-final tomorrow against Fernando Gonzalez. The 22-year-old Scot had never previously gone beyond the third round here, but is improving with every match on his least favourite surface.

The world No 3, nevertheless, remains a comparative novice on clay, particularly in comparison with Federer, who has been second only to Nadal through most of the Spaniard's reign. Victory here would give the Swiss the final jewel in his Grand Slam crown, Nadal having beaten him in each of the last three finals, and would also see him equal Pete Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slam titles.

For the last year it has been Nadal who has been breaking all the records. His 31 consecutive wins is an all-time record at the French Open, while this defeat ended his run of 48 unbeaten five-set matches on terre battue. The pink shirt he wore will no doubt be similarly consigned to history.

Perhaps Soderling was motivated by a desire to stop the world No 1's apparent crusade to erase his fellow Swede, Bjorn Borg, from the clay-court record books. At least one of his records remains intact: Borg won 41 sets in succession at Roland Garros between 1979 and 1981, while Soderling ended Nadal's sequence at 32.

Considering Soderling's anonymity and Nadal's previous domination – the world No 1 came here as French, Wimbledon, Australian and Olympic champion – historians were struggling to come up with a comparable shock. Sampras, having won Wimbledon three years in a row, lost to Richard Krajicek, then the world No 13, in the 1996 quarter-finals at the All England Club, though the Dutchman was acknowledged as a fine grass-court player and indeed went on to win the tournament.

Soderling had lost all three of his previous matches against Nadal. His five-set defeat at Wimbledon two years ago was a tetchy affair, with the Swede impersonating the Spaniard's habit of fiddling with his shorts. After the match, Nadal had said Soderling was "not the best guy in the locker room".

Although there was a feeling that Nadal has been looking jaded after another gruelling clay-court season, nobody was prepared for the drama that was played out on the main show court here. With Soderling going for his shots, Nadal was immediately on the back foot and lost the first set in 34 minutes.

Nadal made an early break in the second set, but Soderling broke back to level at 5-5, only to play a poor tie-break, which the Spaniard won 7-2. Soderling served out for the third set after breaking in the seventh game and quickly fought back after losing the first two games of the fourth, which went to another tie-break. This time the Swede dominated, forcing Nadal back with a succession of huge ground strokes, and on his second match point the Spaniard put a volley out.

Soderling, who said afterwards that he expected a text message of congratulations from Borg, had told himself before the match that he had to believe he could win. "I played a great match," he said. "I kept telling myself it was just another match. That helped me."

A composed Nadal said he had felt fine physically. "I played very short," he said. "I didn't play great. I didn't play with calm at any time during the match. That made it easy for him to play at his level. It was my fault, but he did very well."

Asked about his preparations for Wimbledon, Nadal said with a smile: "Right now, my preparation is for the swimming pool of my house."

Murray, meanwhile, will be hoping not to think about grass for a while yet. His victory over Cilic put him into a select group of just three British players who have made the quarter-finals in the open era here, alongside Roger Taylor, who did so in 1973, and Tim Henman, who went on to make the semi-finals in 2004.

It would be hard to overstate the emphatic nature of Murray's latest win. The world No 3 played with great self-assurance and poise, making just 14 unforced errors. Cilic, a 20-year-old Croatian regarded as one of the game's brightest prospects, was made to look very ordinary by Murray's sustained excellence.

Although he suffered a thigh injury early in the third set, Cilic was already looking a beaten man. Every part of Murray's game looked in good working order. He served well under pressure, constantly had Cilic on the back foot with the strength and depth of his returns and frustrated the Croatian with his dogged retrieving.

Murray's greatest weapon, nevertheless, was the sheer consistency of his ground strokes. Constantly hurried into his shots, Cilic made 40 unforced errors. Breaks of serve were exchanged in the first two games, but thereafter Murray rarely looked troubled. He broke to lead 6-5 with some superb returns, served out for the first set and then made an early break in the second.

The only time Murray was put under sustained pressure was at the end of the second set. Cilic broke to level at 4-4 as Murray played a loose service game and upped the pace as the Scot served to stay in the set at 4-5 and 5-6. Murray held firm, however, and dominated the tie-break, which he won 7-4, thanks to the consistent quality of his returns of serve. Murray's only blemish in the third set came when he dropped his serve at 4-0.

"I came through all the tough situations well," Murray said afterwards. "I played maybe two bad service games, but you are always going to get moments like that in a best-of-five-set match."

Gonzalez, Murray's next opponent, hit 50 winners as he beat Victor Hanescu 6-2, 6-4, 6-2. The 28-year-old Chilean world No 12 has 11 singles titles to his name and in his best Grand Slam performance lost to Federer in the 2007 Australian Open final. He beat Murray when they first met in Basle four years ago, but the Scot won over five sets in their only subsequent meeting, at the US Open in 2006.

Feat of clay: Nadal's record

*Rafael Nadal's loss at Roland Garros yesterday was his first defeat in 32 matches at the French Open. The Spaniard won his debut tournament in 2005 and proceeded to retain his title for the next three years.

*After dropping one set in each of his first three finals (against Mariano Puerta, 2005 and Roger Federer, 2006 and 2007), Nadal thrashed the Swiss to love in last year's final, losing just four games in a 6-1 6-3 6-0 stroll.

James Mariner