NADAL’S FAVORITE GROUND SLIPS BENEATH HIM

Rafael Nadal at the French Open

Rafael Nadal at the French Open

PARIS — In the pink – but on the blink.

That was a dazed Rafa Nada at 5:54 Sunday afternoon as he blew a volley after three and a half hours of play and his last chance to stay unbeaten in Paris and win a fifth successive French Open.

The explosion you heard from the direction of Roland Garros was Rafa going up in smoke, a colossal victim. The clay court seemed to shake.

Pink was his dazzling shirt color, with bright yellow headband and wrist bands for the European season, but I doubt he’ll wear them again. Mournful memories of the 6-2, 6-7 (2-7), 6-4, 7-6 (7-2) blind-siding by Robin Soderling, a stranger to major fourth rounds until this time. It was the first time Rafa had even lost a set in Paris since the 2007 final against Roger Federer. He has never been extended to five sets in his streak of 31 matches here.

Did I see it coming? No, but I thought he might have trouble in the semis with Andy Murray.

Did Rafa see it coming? Hardly. He’d beaten the slightly bearded, 6’3″ No. 25 Soderling, 6-1, 6-0, recently in Rome, and was 3-0 against the Swede.

Did Soderling see it – The Match of his 24 years – coming? “I expect to win every time I go on the court,” he said, but had no idea Senor No. 1 would be on the blink. Rafa owned Paris but he had to give it back after 4 straight titles and 31 straight match wins. Nobody stays unbeaten in the Parisian dirt. Even Napoleon was run out of town. And so this emperor departs, sorry he won’t celebrate his 23rd birthday (June 3rd) here as he had the last 4. His preparation for Wimbledon? “Three days in my swimming pool.” He hadn’t lost his good sense of humor.

The vast multitude of Federerians rejoiced. Maybe Roger can at last win if he doesn’t have to face up to Nadal again as he did in ’06-’07-’08.

“Rafa makes you run all over,” said Soderling, “but today I kept him on the run.” That with piercing groundies, deep, near the lines – and 61 winners (vs. 33 for Nadal).

Rafa said he couldn’t get calm, and played not his best. After four years of perfection, somebody’s going to nail you. It was Soderling, pleased to be the great god Borg’s body guard. Bjorn Borg won the French 6 times between 1974 and 1981. “Glad to do it for him, I hope he calls me, or at least sends me an instant message,” said Soderling.

Has Rafa played too much this year? Probably, but, as he said, “Stop it! Stop it! Had I played my best level against Soderling, maybe the results would have been different. But he played a very good level of tennis and I didn’t play well, so the results are what they are. I am not going to modify how I prepare, because I’ve always prepared the same way for the last four years, so it wouldn’t make sense.”

All-time upset in Paris? A tennis version of Muhammad Ali knocking out Sonny Liston? One of them, in the male precinct. Perhaps comparable to little Michael Chang coming from 2 sets down to beat 3-time champ Ivan Lendl in the 4th round 20 years ago – and going on to the title.

Almost forgot the gorgeous Ana Ivanovic losing her title, too, beaten by the very loud Victoria Azarenka, 6-2, 6-3. A royal flush: two champions gone the same day. Never happened here before. But Ana has been on the blink practically since she was crowned a year ago.

We’ll miss her smile and Rafa’s pink shirt.

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