PARIS — For 31 matches, Rafael Nadal ruled the red clay of Roland Garros, boasting an unbeaten record and an unbreakable will.
For 31 matches, this was his surface, his tournament, his time.
For 31 matches, dating to his debut on May 23, 2005, Nadal never truly was challenged, much less defeated, at the French Open, allowing him to win four consecutive titles and close in on becoming the first player in history with five in a row.
Until Sunday. Until the fourth round of the 2009 French Open. Until Robin Soderling, a 24-year-old from Sweden with a bit of an attitude and 6-feet-3 worth of power, transformed Nadal's career mark at Roland Garros from a best-ever 31-0 to 31-1 with 31/2 hours of assertive, and sometimes spectacular, play.
"Well, that's the end of the road, and I have to accept it," Nadal said. "I have to accept my defeat as I accepted my victories: with calm."
Simply put, Soderling's 6-2, 6-7 (2), 6-4, 7-6 (2) victory over the No. 1-seeded Nadal rates as one of the biggest upsets in tennis history. Not sure? Set aside all of Nadal's bona fides for a moment -- the dominance on clay; the six Grand Slam titles, including at Wimbledon and Australian Open -- and focus on this: Soderling, seeded No. 23, never had won so much as a third-round match at any major tournament before this one.
"I kept telling myself, 'This is just another match,' " Soderling said.
Nadal won all three of their previous meetings, including a contentious match at Wimbledon in 2007 and a 6-1, 6-0 rout on clay at Rome in April. But this time, Nadal was a half-step slower than usual -- he tumbled to the ground in the third set, smearing clay all over his pink shirt and charcoal shorts -- and Soderling was lights-out good.
Soderling finished with 61 winners, 28 more than Nadal, and won the point on 27 of 35 trips to the net.
"One of those days," Nadal said. "I had someone playing very well in front of me."
The stunning result rendered the rest of Sunday's action around the grounds mere footnotes, from reigning French Open women's champion Ana Ivanovic's exit in a 6-2, 6-3 loss to No. 9 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, to Maria Sharapova's latest three-set victory, to the Williams' sisters loss in doubles.
All that really mattered on this day was Nadal's ouster. In the first round, he broke Bjorn Borg's record of 28 straight French Open wins by a man. In the second, he eclipsed Chris Evert's overall tournament record of 29.
"Everybody's in a state of shock, I would think," said Mats Wilander, a three-time French Open champion who works with Soderling as Sweden's Davis Cup captain. "At some point, Nadal was going to lose. But nobody expected it to happen today, and maybe not this year. Now it's a matter of: There's a tournament to be won."
The biggest beneficiary might be Roger Federer, the 13-time major champion whose résumé is missing only a French Open title. Federer lost to Nadal in each of the past three finals at Roland Garros and the 2005 semifinals.
"If one guy deserves it," Nadal said, "that's him."