With Nadal's loss, Federer could be the biggest winner

Rafael Nadal's surprising loss on Sunday to Robin Soderling paves the way for Roger Federer to win the French Open this time.

Before Sunday, Rafael Nadal had managed to turn one of tennis's great showcases into little more than a speed bump.

Mr. Nadal would win the French Open. It seemed so certain that it could be written as a statement. The world would merely have to slow down, and wait two weeks for his procession of He-Man forehands to whistle by opponents. Then we could accelerate again, heading toward Wimbledon and ask: Who, honestly, is going to stop Nadal from winning the Grand Slam?

We now have our answer. A month ahead of schedule.

Robin Soderling.

Upsets are not so uncommon in sports. But Soderling's four-set victory over Nadal has the scent of the the US' 1-0 soccer defeat of England in the 1950 World Cup, an upset so unfathomable that one English paper, certain that the score could not be correct, printed it as 10-1 to England.

Somewhere, someone is writing that, surely, it was Nadal that won in four sets, 6-2, 6-7 (2), 6-4, 7-6 (2).

Nadal's history at the French Open seemed to put him beyond the realm of upsets -- and certainly beyond the realm of Soderling, who, by making it to the quarterfinals of the French, has now matched his all-time best result in a major.

Before Sunday, however, Nadal had never lost in the French Open, building a 31-0 record. He had entered four French Opens and won them all. In the process, he had lost only seven sets, and none since the 2007 final. That is an average of 1.75 sets lost per tournament. Sunday, he lost three in an afternoon.

The result means a great deal for Nadal. It ends his bid to become the first man ever to win five consecutive French Opens. It also ensures that he will not make a run at the most hallowed mark in tennis: winning all four majors in the same year.

Yet it is possible that the result means even more for Roger Federer.

Mr. Federer sits on the cusp of two of the great achievements in his sport: the career Grand Slam (winning all four majors during a career), and tying the record of 14 major titles.

Now, after the unlikeliest of afternoons, those two goals could coincide.

It is in some ways fitting that Pete Sampras holds the record of 14 majors. Like Federer (so far), Mr. Sampras never won the French Open. Only five men have ever won all four majors during a career, and only one since 1970 (Andre Agassi).

Federer, however, might have done it years ago had it not been for Nadal.

Sampras only once made it to the semifinal of the French. Federer has reached the final of the French Open three times consecutively. In each, though, he has lost to Nadal.

The field is hardly open now. Clay-court specialists remain, as well as the ever-improving Andy Murray. But Federer beat Nadal in the Madrid Masters earlier this month, signaling that he remains perhaps the No. 2 clay-court tennis player in the world.

All of a sudden, in this French Open, that could be good enough.

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