Commentary

How Soderling humanized Rafa in Paris

Updated: May 31, 2009, 10:12 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

PARIS -- Bjorn Borg's historical place here is safe, thanks to a feisty fellow Swede who froze out the hottest clay-court player of his generation.

"I'm expecting at least an SMS [text message] from him,'' Robin Soderling said, smiling under cocked eyebrows, after ending Rafael Nadal's quest for a fifth straight French Open title, which would have broken the record held jointly by Nadal and Borg.

Who is the man that unmasked Nadal? "He made Rafa look pretty average, and that's almost impossible to do on clay,'' noted veteran doubles player and commentator Rennae Stubbs of Australia.

Nothing in Soderling's erratic history indicated that he was on the verge of this coup d'etat. He was 11-10 in ATP-level matches entering the tournament, and has won three titles, all on indoor carpet, in the course of a career interrupted two seasons ago by a left wrist injury. The right-hander said he actually benefited from that hiatus, working out hard, perfecting his slice technique and honing his defensive skills.

[+] EnlargeRobin Soderling
Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty ImagesRobin Soderling is the first Swede to reach the French Open quarterfinals in nine years.

Yet Swedish Davis Cup captain and three-time French Open winner Mats Wilander said it is surprising that Soderling, 24, has taken this long to advance to the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam event.

"Robin, we know, has the capacity to beat anyone,'' Wilander said. "It's just that three out of five sets, mentally he hasn't been strong enough. He hits unbelievably hard from above his shoulders, so obviously Nadal was late and didn't put as much spin on the ball, but it was all caused by the opponent. It's monumental, it's been coming for a long time.''

Wilander called Soderling "a great guy" and "a real team player," and there's a reason for that endorsement. Soderling answered the bell each time Wilander rang, and has shown blinders-on fortitude, winning several key road matches in hostile environments. They included a straight-sets rout of Jose Acasuso on clay in Argentina last year that kept Sweden alive in the quarterfinals until the final Sunday. Soderling fought valiantly in the decisive match before succumbing to David Nalbandian in five sets.

"He thinks he can beat anyone on any surface,'' Wilander said. "I have to say finally it's nice to see someone stand up to Nadal mentally, and not be bothered by anything and let Nadal take his time, don't worry about it, and be in Rafa's face a little more than the other guys are doing.

"Robin is like that against everybody. He was like that against Nalbandian and 12,000 Argentines in Davis Cup. He really doesn't give a s---, basically. It's a throwback.''

Wilander said he didn't think there was anything Nadal could have done tactically to turn the tide, and Stubbs agreed, saying Soderling's 6-foot-4 height, albatross reach, frequently disguised forehand and flat, penetrating groundstrokes proved too much for Nadal to overcome.

"He's got those long levers to go running for Nadal's long, spinning balls,'' Stubbs said. "The reach helped him on the wide balls, and his height helped him on the high balls.

"Rafa looked shell-shocked today. It looked to me like he knew he didn't have it.''

Past history augurs well for the 23rd-seeded Soderling against his next opponent, Russia's 10th-seeded Nikolay Davydenko, a two-time semifinalist at Roland Garros. Soderling has won three of their five matches, including both contested on clay.

Soderling was winless in three previous tries against Nadal, including a contentious third-round match at Wimbledon in 2007 that took five sets to resolve and an aggravating five days to play because of rain delays and the tournament's tradition of taking the middle Sunday off.

During the marathon, the Swede mimicked some of Nadal's on-court antics and mocked his tortoise-like service rituals, drawing an angry response from Nadal after the match. On Sunday, Soderling said he was tired of answering questions about the donnybrook.

Earlier this month, Nadal crushed Soderling 6-1, 6-0 in Rome. Soderling's coach, Magnus Norman -- the last Swede to make the quarterfinals here in 2000, when he was a finalist -- said Soderling was nervous about the rematch despite his apparent composure.

"I always thought he had a chance against Rafa, and I tried to tell him that,'' Norman said. "He told me, 'What if I don't get a game?' After he won the first game, I saw it in his shoulders, the relief.''

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford

Enterprise and Olympic Sports
Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.