Why Fed should be wary of Soderling
PARIS -- Sweden's Robin Soderling, who ended one formidable French Open roll last year when he upset Rafael Nadal in the fourth round, will be trying to short-circuit two streaks against Roger Federer in Tuesday's French Open quarterfinal that reunites the 2009 finalists. The world No. 1 is working a 12-0 shutout against Soderling and has reached 23 straight Grand Slam semifinals dating back to 2004.
Soderling unofficially overcame history when he bested Federer in an exhibition match in Abu Dhabi to start the season. "I always said the more times I play him, the closer I'll get," Soderling said afterward. Five months later, Federer doesn't seem too rattled. "I don't want to downplay or up-play exhibition matches, but they're there to try out a few things," he said Sunday. "That match has nothing to do with here."
But after booking yet another date with Federer -- their fourth meeting in the past five Slams -- Soderling said his chances of making a breakthrough may rely less on trying to surpass his opponent's brilliance and more on winning imperfect points.
"If you look at all the top guys, they're not playing the best tennis every week," he said. "Maybe you have three or four, maybe five matches in a year where you feel like you play really, really well.
"The other 50 matches you still have to win, and then -- all the top guys, they win a lot of matches against good players without playing the best tennis. I think that's the biggest difference between a guy ranked in the top 10 and the guy ranked in the top 30, 40."
Soderling can say that with authority. He joined the elite last season, kick-starting his climb with his run to the final in Paris that boosted him from No. 25 to No. 12, then cracking the top 10 in October. Soderling hasn't left the club since and entered this tournament as the fifth seed -- quite an upgrade for a player who hadn't been past the third round of a Grand Slam before last year.
But Soderling -- amiable off the court, driven and dead serious on it -- resists the notion that he arrived at Roland Garros as one athlete and left as another. He sees it as a process. "A couple years ago I was very focused on playing well all the time," he said. "And now, you know, what matters to me now is to win matches. Doesn't matter if I play well and win matches or play bad and win matches. You still have to win."
Whether his transformation took place over the course of two weeks or two years, there's no doubt that Soderling is playing like he belongs. His progress through the draw has been crisp and businesslike. He breezed through his first two matches in 94 and 71 minutes, respectively, and has dropped only one set thus far.
"Last year was a surprise -- this year, he expects to be in the big matches," said former pro and current Tennis Channel analyst Justin Gimelstob. "He always was a big-point, big-match player; he possessed the weapons and he wasn't daunted by the big occasion. But just on a point-in, point-out basis over the course of matches over a year, the mental stability and maturation is definitely has been the change."
There was a certain just-happy-to-be-there quality about Soderling in the championship match last year; his presence on the stadium court on the final Sunday was only slightly less surprising than the interloper who dashed onto the court and tried to corral Federer before security guards hauled him off. Soderling was swimming against the tide of Federer's talent, his experience in major finals and his intense motivation to complete a career Slam.
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That current won't be as strong this time. Gimelstob said Federer will have to serve exceptionally well and use all of his variety to defuse his lanky, lashing opponent, who handles high topspin well. Soderling, as always, must try to decode Federer's backhand slice or play more to his forehand to try to avoid having to deal with it so much.
Soderling isn't alone in his futility against the world No. 1. Other top players who have been shut out by Federer over the years include David Ferrer (0-10), Mikhail Youzhny (0-10), Tommy Robredo (0-9), Gael Monfils (0-5) and Fernando Verdasco (0-4).
Perhaps it's no accident that Soderling was filmed on site here at Roland Garros performing Abba's "Gimme Gimme Gimme" in the karaoke studio where the top players let their hair down. (He performed wearing a long platinum blonde wig that harkened back to both glam rock and Bjorn Borg.) Sooner or later, Soderling has to play with the conviction that no one should be able to beat him every time out.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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