Befuddling performance from Soderling
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Robin Soderling became the second big name in as many days to exit the men's field at the Australian Open. But unlike Andy Roddick, the fourth seed was regarded by many as having an outside chance to win a first Grand Slam title here.
Soderling entered the event on a roll, winning a warm-up in Brisbane, to suggest he'd at least reach an initial quarterfinal in Melbourne. Instead, a highly erratic Soderling fell to silky smooth Ukrainian Alexandr Dolgopolov 1-6, 6-3, 6-1, 4-6, 6-2 in the fourth round in what had to be one of the shortest five-set encounters in history.
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"I struggled many times in this tournament," said Soderling, who was ousted in the first round last year. "I think I never had a good first month in my career."
Could Dolgopolov, whose dad used to coach French Open finalist Andrei Medvedev, be the latest surprise package at the Australian Open, following in the footsteps of Marcos Baghdatis, Fernando Gonzalez, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Fernando Verdasco and Marin Cilic?
Don't bet against it.
Dolgopolov, who climbed from outside the top 130 to inside the top 50 in 2010, bamboozled Soderling with a wicked slice, the kind that cuts through the court and stays low. It's a shot Roger Federer has used with so much success against the towering Swede.
Soderling usually either erred or was out of position on the next ball, allowing Dolgopolov to pounce. On other occasions, Dolgopolov's well-disguised groundstrokes got the relatively immobile Soderling on the move, away from his comfort zone. A blister on Soderling's foot might not have helped, although he said it wasn't a factor.
Despite winning nine matches in a row to start 2011, Soderling added he never felt comfortable in the past week.
Dolgopolov upset Tsonga in the previous round, a match which also went the distance, and next confronts Andy Murray, a 6-3, 6-1, 6-1 victor over a disappointing Jurgen Melzer. Dolgopolov is reaping the rewards of arriving in Australia the first week of December to prepare.
"He's grown up waving that tennis racket like a wand since he was a kid," said Dolgopolov's ultra laid-back Australian coach, Jack Reader. "He can do anything he wants with the ball. It's just a case of choosing which way to go. He's pretty smart on court."
Soderling possesses one of the most lethal serves in the men's game. Yet he won only 59 percent of points behind the first serve -- an indication of Dolgopolov's returning abilities.
"He returned Robin's serve and did the same with Jo," said Reader. "That's what Robin didn't plan on today. I reckon that's one of the things that got him. He hit a big serve and bang, it came back."
Dolgopolov has played the elite tough before, which Rafael Nadal discovered firsthand -- on clay -- in Madrid last year. Nadal proclaimed afterward: "He's very unusual and difficult to play against."
Soderling would have known that, despite having never faced the 22-year-old previously. And Soderling looked like he was cruising, taking the first set in 21 minutes. Up a break in the second, too, Soderling suddenly stuttered.
Making four unforced errors in the first, he'd commit 47 over the next four sets. At times, his shots missed by some margin, outside the tram lines. When Soderling broke to start the fifth, order was apparently restored. He lost the next seven points -- six on unforced errors.
Not the way he wanted to begin his Grand Slam partnership with new coach Claudio Pistolesi, who replaced Magnus Norman.
"My two biggest weapons are my serve and my forehand," Soderling said. "They were not weapons today. Then it's tough. I was really fighting."
As Nadal said last week after struggling versus Aussie prospect Bernard Tomic, sometimes you just have to win ugly.
Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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