Rafael Nadal, the king of clay, was dethroned yesterday by Robin Soderling who recorded a seismic victory over the world No 1 at a stunned Roland Garros. Boasting an immaculate record of 31 consecutive wins at the French Open, the Spaniard was expected to breeze past the Monaco-based Swede and continue his quest for a remarkable fifth title in a row in Paris. But his reign his now over after Soderling proved the muscular left-hander is not invincible after all on clay.
In reaching the quarter-final for the first time, the No 23 seed became the first player to take a set off Nadal since the 2007 tournament as he powered his way to a 6-2, 6-7 (2-7), 6-4, 7-6 (7-2) victory. It was a win that represents the zenith of a modest career that has failed to see the 24-year-old reach the quarter-final of a grand slam event. Soderling's devastating forehand was a feature of his victory and it was his ambition that led to him making 59 unforced errors to Nadal's 28. But Soderling, who unfurled almost twice as many winners as the Spaniard, was ruthless when it came to converting break points, enjoying an 83 per cent success rate to Nadal's 50.
He will now meet Nikolay Davydenko or Fernando Verdascoin the last eight. The defeat of Nadal opens the draw up for Andy Murray who yesterday superbly dispelled any doubts about his potential to triumph on the red clay of Roland Garros, which suits him less than any of the other grand slam venues. The British No 1 turned in a near-flawless performance to sweep aside what was expected to be a daunting challenge from the 13th-seeded Marin Cilic, a Croatian who had won all three of his previous matches here in straight sets.
Cilic, who needed treatment for a thigh injury in the closing stages of the match, stretched Murray in the opening two sets of their tussle on Suzanne Lenglen court but was powerless to prevent the flying Scotsman from closing him out 7-5, 7-6, 6-1 in 2hr 31min. The outstanding victory earned Murray a quarter-final confrontation with Fernando Gonzalez, of Chile, who also looked good yesterday in despatching the Romanian Victor Hanescu 6-2, 6-4, 6-2. Murray is only the third Briton to reach the last eight of the French in the open era, the world No 3 emulating the achievements of Roger Taylor and Tim Henman but he is in no mood to stop there as he seeks to go one better than his best grand slam showing - defeat to Roger Federer in last year's US Open final. If he continues to restrict his error count like he did against Cilic - he made only 14 unforced mistakes - then he will take some stopping.
One of his main rivals who will not be able to stop Murray is Novak Djokovic who was at a loss to explain his shock early exit at the hands of the 29th-seeded German Philipp Kohlschreiber. The fourth-ranked Serbian refused to make excuses about the way the schedule left him playing catch-up on the rest of the field following rain delays. Djokovic, who won last year's Australian Open, admitted to feeling the mental strain of playing for three days in a row but put his 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 defeat down to his failure to find the rhythm that had enabled him to give a good account of himself in the clay court season and be spoken of as a potential champion of Roland Garros. "This was just a bad day at the office but I take confidence from the way I have played on clay and hope that I can come back and have an even better run next year," said Djokovic.
"I felt good before this match but suddenly on the court it was a different story. The premature removal of Djokovic from the bottom half of the draw should work to the advantage of Roger Federer, who is seeking to capture the one grand slam title that has so far eluded him. Federer, who needs just one more of the major titles to draw level with the American Pete Sampras's record haul of 14, was expecting to meet Djokovic in the semi-finals. The Swiss, whose fourth-round opponent today is the German veteran Tommy Haas, is now probably preparing himself for a semi-final clash with the imposing Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro, who promises to be the next big thing in the men's game. Del Potro has made rapid progress up the rankings list in the last two seasons and the fifth seed stands on the verge of reaching his third successive grand slam semi-final if he can find a way past the top local hope Jo Wilfried Tsonga this afternoon. firstname.lastname@example.org