King Nadal's Paris crown finally slips

PARIS (Reuters) - A seismic shock rippled through Roland Garros at 17.54 pm on Sunday when the unthinkable finally happened -- claycourt king Rafael Nadal's aura of invincibility was pierced, punctured and finally ripped apart.

Robin Soderling was barely known outside tennis circles but the disarming Swede played the match of his life to humble arguably the greatest ever claycourter 6-2 6-7 6-4 7-6 in the fourth round of the French Open after 3-1/2 hours of high drama.

Soderling left the world number one and a capacity crowd on Philippe Chatrier Court flabbergasted as he handed the Spaniard his first defeat at Roland Garros and left his dreams of a record fifth consecutive title in tatters.

A disbelieving crowd watched in fascination as the 22-year-old was finally brought to his knees when his attempt at an angled volley looped wide.

As Soderling sealed the champion's fate, the 23rd seed stretched his arms wide open to lap up the applause from the hollering fans before hurling his racket high into the stands.

On the other side of the net, a forlorn Nadal was left to digest his first defeat in 32 matches at the claycourt major.

"This is not a tragedy, losing here in Paris. It had to happen one day," said Nadal, who had not lost a set here since the 2007 final against Roger Federer.

"That's the end of the road, and I have to accept it. I have to accept my defeat as I accepted my victories: with calm."

Soderling added: "This is for sure the biggest moment so far of my career. I couldn't even dream of this before the match, so I will remember this match for the rest of my life."

The result was the biggest upset in the sport since a then little-known Federer snapped Pete Sampras's 31-match winning streak at Wimbledon in the fourth round in 2001.

On a bad day for champions, women's holder Ana Ivanovic also bade an early farewell but her exit almost went unnoticed as Paris buzzed with the news of Nadal's demise.

The eighth-seeded Serb surrendered her French Open crown with a whimper when she was outclassed 6-2 6-3 by Belarussian Victoria Azarenka. The 19-year-old set up a quarter-final date with champion-in-waiting Dinara Safina.

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