A definitive answer? It doesn't exist. But those certain that Robin Söderling's demolition of world No. 1 Rafael Nadal on Sunday at Roland Garros wasn't the biggest upset in tennis history—that it can't surpass 17-year-old Michael Chang's victory over top-ranked Ivan Lendl at the 1989 French Open or unknown Peter Doohan's win over two-time defending champion Boris Becker at Wimbledon in 1987—should consider this: Before he stalked onto Court Philippe Chatrier to shatter Nadal's once-unbreakable clay-court game into a million dirty pieces, the flinty Swede had a moment of pure panic. "What if I don't win one game?" Söderling, 24, asked his coach, Magnus Norman. "What if I embarrass myself?"
That was, of course, a real concern. Nadal had rolled into Sunday's fourth-round match having won four consecutive French Opens, having broken Bjorn Borg's record of 30 straight wins in Paris—and having just crushed Söderling 6--1, 6--0 on clay in Rome. The 25th-ranked Söderling, meanwhile, is one of the tour's most notorious underachievers. After mocking Nadal's on-court tics during their epic five-day, rain-delayed Wimbledon match in 2007, he is also the only player the well-mannered Majorcan openly detests. "Not nice," Nadal described Söderling then. "I asked around the locker room, and nobody has anything good to say about him."
Söderling has always been a troublesome opponent for Nadal. They went to five sets at that wet Wimbledon, and Söderling held break points in each of Nadal's service games during that 6--1 first set in Rome last month. Moreover, as former world No. 1 Mats Wilander put it on Sunday evening, Söderling "doesn't really have respect for other tennis players." The Nadal camp continually carps about the Swede's insulting handshake etiquette and his refusal to say hello in the locker room, but it's nothing personal. "Robin is like that against everybody," Wilander says. "He doesn't give a s---, basically."
Once past his spasm of panic on Sunday, Söderling told himself as he walked onto the court, I have to believe. I have a chance, I have a small chance. Then he reverted to gloriously obnoxious form, staring Nadal down after each stinging volley, pounding the top seed's usually concussive ground strokes, strutting around and fist-clenching as if he had nothing to lose. And he didn't, not after winning the first set 6--2—the first time Nadal had dropped a set in Paris since 2007. Nadal surged to win the second-set tiebreaker, but Söderling kept blasting serves with abandon, and he hit his ground strokes so aggressively that Nadal had to battle defensively from eight feet behind the baseline. Up 4--3, 30--15 in the third set, Söderling ripped a charging forehand that sent Nadal tumbling into the dust. He got up slowly, like a bully bullied at last. "I didn't want him to make me run," Söderling said after closing out the match 6--2, 6--7, 6--4, 7--6. "I tried to be the one that made him run."
When it was over, the two men shook hands coolly, as always, and in the postmatch press conference Nadal was dismissive in a way he never is with other opponents. "I didn't play great," he said. "I didn't play calm at [any] time.... That makes [it] easy [for him]."
The loss sent massive shock waves through the men's game, similar to those felt after Nadal ended Roger Federer's five-year reign at Wimbledon last year. It turns out that Nadal is vulnerable, too—and, stranger still, he doesn't seem to mind. He was visibly tense during his matches at Roland Garros this year, and he smiled and joked after Sunday's defeat like a man released from a world of pressure. "It's not the worst [loss] of my career," he said. "Not even close." Then he kissed a few French Open staffers on the cheek, threw his bags into a tournament car and rolled out through the gates, tapping the buttons on his cellphone.
Now it's someone else's tournament. With fourth seed Novak Djokovic gone, too—upset in the third round by Germany's Philipp Kohlschreiber—all eyes turned again to Federer and his pursuit of history: his first French Open title and a record-tying 14th Grand Slam singles championship. Speaking of Federer, who rallied to beat Germany's Tommy Haas on Monday and would face Gaël Monfils in the quarterfinals, Wilander said, "If you can't win it now, then you're definitely not considered the best player of all time."
Söderling? Nobody gives him much of a chance. He won his tournament already, and he knows it: After he and Nadal left the court, Söderling went to a corner of the locker room he'd exited in fear nearly four hours before. His cool deserted him at last; what he'd done hit him like a brick. He grabbed a towel so no one could see, then dropped his face into it and wept.