PARIS: It had never been a question of "if" but rather how convincingly would Rafael Nadal clinch his record fifth successive French Open title.
But the baseline behemoth once indestructible at Roland Garros turned out to be mere flesh and blood, mere forehands and backhands as his unbeaten record at the seat of claycourt tennis came to an inglorious end.
The superman who had boasted a 31-0 record before Sunday did not lose his crown to his great rival Roger Federer in a final befitting the gravity of the defeat.
Instead he slumped to an unassuming Swede. One he had beaten 6-1, 6-0 the last time they had met on clay, in Rome four weeks ago.
Before this week Robin Soderling had never advanced beyond the third round of a grand slam tournament but on centre stage in Paris he proved his nerve was not to be questioned.
The 6-2, 6-7, 6-4, 7-6 upset not only sent shockwaves through the sporting world but if Roger Federer needed any luck to complete his collection of grand slam trophies, it was handed to him the moment Soderling ended Nadal's four-year Paris reign. Federer survived a mighty scare to beat Germany's Tommy Haas 6-7 (4/7), 5-7, 6-4, 6-0, 6-2 to reach the quarterfinals yesterday.
Players in shock
"All the players are in a state of shock," Soderling's fellow Swede and former French Open champion Mats Wilander said while commentating.
"At some point Nadal was going to lose but no one expected it to happen today, or maybe even next year. Now there is a tournament to be won by a bunch of players."
Nadal was such an overwhelming favourite to win in Paris, that Andre Agassi had even tipped him to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to complete a rare calendar Grand Slam in 2009.
With the Spaniard already holding the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon titles, the idea did not seem inconceivable.
"I didn't think I'd ever see it (a calendar Grand Slam) just because it seems like the impossible (but) ... this is the first time in a real long time we're going to have an opportunity to see somebody maybe pull that off," Agassi said two weeks ago.
For years, Federer had been the man everyone thought would follow in Laver's footsteps. But despite winning 13 grand slam titles, one short of Pete Sampras's overall record, the Swiss has yet to conquer Roland Garros.
Nadal has wrecked Federer's Parisian dreams in the final for the past three years and the signs were that the 22-year-old would again flatten all those who dared to face him on red dirt.
When he demolished Lleyton Hewitt for the loss of just five games in the previous round on Friday, few would have thought Nadal's Grand Slam chances would be scuppered on his favourite surface.
His exit coupled with Novak Djokovic's departure on Saturday has thrown the field wide open and only one name was on everyone's lips as his would-be successor.
"Everybody was expecting Nadal to win again at Roland Garros. But he lost. What happens now? Maybe now Federer is thinking, oh, now I have chance to win Roland Garros for a first time," summed up Russia's Nikolay Davydenko, who is still in the mix himself.
In fact, if anyone had suggested that even American Andy Roddick and Britain's Andy Murray, neither of whom had advanced beyond the third round here before, would still be standing when Nadal had gone, they would have been laughed at.
But as the world at large buzzed with the claycourt king's demise, the pretenders to Nadal's throne were rubbing their hands in glee.
The defeat ensured a new name would be engraved on the Musketeers' Cup come June 7 as the Spaniard had been the last former champion left standing.
Nadal hoped it would be Federer.
"That would be great. He has tried to win it for many years, and he was very unfortunate losing three finals and one semifinal," the Spaniard said.
"If one guy deserves it, that's him."