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Sunday, June 6, 2010
Just the beginning for Soderling


For those with any doubt, Robin Soderling proved, even in defeat, he's here to stay. The big forehand, big serve and, well, big everything, are weapons sure to see the 25-year-old linger for years in the top 10.

Against (and this is no exaggeration) 19 players out of 20, Soderling wins the first set of Sunday's French Open final and gets a break early in the second. Soderling crushed flat inside-out forehands, stationing himself firmly inside the baseline, with his backhand not diminishing, either.

The exception stood menacingly across the net in Rafael Nadal, who played one of the best clay-court matches of his life -- and that says something -- to land a fifth crown at Roland Garros. The 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 score was harsh on Soderling. He performed better than in last year's final against Roger Federer, although he claimed one fewer game. Rafa is a soul destroyer for opponents.

Soderling indeed strikes the ball harder than almost anyone on tour, with lanky Argentine Juan Martin del Potro a suitable comparison. His mind is in the right place, thanks largely to his 1½ year partnership with coach Magnus Norman, like Soderling a French Open finalist. Norman has transformed Soderling from an indoor player to an all-court threat, showing his protégé how to forget things that bothered him in the past -- fans moving in the stands, a stiff wind and poor calls.

From all accounts a guarded individual, Soderling appears to be loosening up, which is good. Evidence came in his runner-up speech, when he dabbled in French. The fans loved it. It won't hurt his marketability. Close friends suggest he's a good guy. Nadal positively discussed Soderling's personality Friday, casting aside much (not all) of what transpired at Wimbledon three years ago. Soderling will forever be reminded of that.

Along with his weapons, his belief and will to win existed prior to Norman. Soderling is one of those guys who steps on court believing, not simply hoping, he can overcome the likes of Nadal and Federer. No wonder Mats Wilander, the seven-time Grand Slam champion and former Swedish Davis Cup captain, predicted Soderling would win a major in 2010.

Who knows if Soderling will win either Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. He hasn't advanced past the fourth round at Wimbledon and quarterfinals at Flushing Meadows. Beaten by Federer at the French, Wimbledon and U.S. Open last year (Soderling got close and closer), he's gotten over the hump by taking out the Swiss in Paris.

He'll go deep at Wimbledon. Given del Potro's wrist injury, Novak Djokovic's ongoing slump, and Nikolay Davydenko's grass aversion, Soderling has a shot of venturing to the semifinals. Andy Murray isn't playing his best at the moment, and can Andy Roddick replicate his 2009 at the All England Club? So many of the balls that came back against Nadal won't come back on the grass.

As Soderling takes over for the consistently good-without-being-spectacular Thomas Johansson and Jonas Bjorkman, Sweden has another player to carry the torch.