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Saturday, June 6, 2009
Federer's destiny won't come easy


Robin Soderling hasn't beaten Roger Federer in nine tries, so why should it be any different in their 10th meeting, on the crushed red brick of the Court Chatrier at Roland Garros?

Well, because you never know what's going to happen when two destinies collide, and in retrospect, both men have at times seemed fated to win this event. In Soderling's case, it's been because he's playing the best tennis of his life, in a sport in which any guy with a résumé like his can take out even the greatest of players.

Round after round, match after match, beginning with his earth-shattering upset of Rafael Nadal in the fourth round, Soderling has demonstrated that he deserves to be here. He took out probably the greatest clay-courter of all-time in Nadal, and some of the best clay-courters of this time (David Ferrer, Nikolay Davydenko) these past two weeks. There's no reason he can't take out one more and become a blue-chip trivia question: Who's the only player to beat both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer at the same major?

But it isn't as if Federer's star has been fading while Soderling's has been rising. Let's remember, most players lucky enough to get to a Grand Slam final, no matter what their own story is, would salivate to find a journeyman and first-time Grand Slam finalist waiting across the net. But even more than that, the way Federer has survived here, rocked, shocked and ultimately struggling to shake off the effects of Nadal's unexpected loss has created an air of destiny about him, and in his case it's a much more familiar script:

Grand Slam champion down on his luck and seemingly surpassed by his greatest rival suddenly gets an utterly unanticipated chance to take the single prize that has eluded him -- thanks to that rival.

As Andre Agassi said in a news conference here: "Roger has been the second-best clay-courter [after Nadal] in the last five years. … He deserves this. … It almost feels like destiny."

So whose destiny narrative is more compelling? It's kind of an oxymoron, so let's look at some things that we can quantify: The conventional thinking around Roland Garros has been that the cool, wet weather that has rolled in favors Federer, because Soderling is more reliant on the power and pace a dry, "fast" clay court can provide.

However, Soderling himself kills that theory (whether he's engaging in a little strategic misinformation is open to question), saying: "Normally I like to play in slower conditions. I think actually I played my best clay-court matches when it's been a little bit colder and a little bit rainy. Hopefully it will be good for me."

Hmm …

In terms of the X's and O's, this will be something like the challenge Federer faced in the semifinals against Juan Martin Del Potro: Can Federer dig into the deepest tool box in tennis to blunt the serve, atomic forehand and low-trajectory, stinging two-handed backhand of Soderling? Can he outwit a guy who he may not be able to outhit?

Nobody at this tournament has hit the ball as hard, cleanly and consistently as Soderling -- which is why he survived Fernando Gonzalez, one of the biggest hitters on the tour, in the semifinals. But can Soderling use his power as effectively when he's facing a blizzard of drop shots (Federer's new best friend) or heavily sliced, short balls whose own pace can't be used against him?

Those seem to be the big issues, along with the most common and therefore most easily overlooked question regarding any match: Can either guy serve well enough, especially when it most matters (when in danger), to keep his opponent back on his heels? If Federer serves well enough, he can keep Soderling from drawing a bead and whaling on the ball; if Soderling has a good day at the serving notch, he can push Federer around and keep him from employing his versatility.

And remember, even destiny narratives can change. A Federer loss would suggest that he's fated never to win Roland Garros, and a Soderling loss might suggest that his destiny was to lose his only Grand Slam final to the guy who, in winning, became the universally acclaimed Greatest of All Time.

Let's see how each man handles his own unique burden of pressure.