Commentary

Soderling rocks tennis world again

Updated: June 1, 2010, 5:18 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

PARIS -- Tuesday's cover of Quotidien, the daily program at Roland Garros, featured a photo of reigning champion Roger Federer facing Robin Soderling, the scowling Swede, and this provocative headline:

"Parfume De Revanche."

Translated, it means, "Smells Like Revenge."

Really? In 12 previous meetings, Soderling had done nothing to suggest he could even play with Federer, much less beat him.

Federer won them all -- the longest string of futility between active players on the ATP World Tour. Federer beat Soderling in straight sets here a year ago in the final. Soderling had lost 28 of 30 sets, and Federer had won 31 of his previous 32 Grand Slam singles matches.

There was, however, a massive, single asterisk: A year and one day ago, Soderling rocked the tennis world with a victory over Rafael Nadal, the four-time French Open champion who had never, ever lost at Roland Garros.

On Tuesday evening, Soderling somehow managed to do it again, extracting the sweetest, most satisfying revenge you can imagine. He beat Federer 3-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 in the quarterfinals to send home the defending French Open champion for the second year in a row.

More than two hours after match, Federer finally appeared in the main interview room. Was he disappointed?

"Well, disappointed to a certain degree," he said. "I didn't think I played a bad match. He came up with some great tennis."

Federer said that Soderling's power became even greater thanks to the heavy conditions. Soderling's faster serve allowed him to hit through the court, but Federer said he was lacking the 5-8 more kilometers an hour to achieve that.

[+] EnlargeRobin Soderling
Patrick Kovarik/Getty ImagesRobin Soderling is the first player to beat a defending champion at Roland Garros in back-to-back years since Mats Wilander defeated Yannick Noah in 1984 and Ivan Lendl in 1985.

It was the earliest exit at a major for Federer in six years -- when he lost in the third round here to the great Gustavo Kuerten.

As a result, one of the most impressive streaks in the history of sport ended in a stadium of stunned spectators.

Federer's feat of reaching 23 consecutive Grand Slam singles semifinals, a run that began at Wimbledon in 2004, is history. To put that in perspective, Ivan Lendl's streak of 10 is the second-best. For so long, Federer had been perfect in the first through fifth rounds -- a total of 119 match wins without a single misstep.

Until Soderling took him down in a steady drizzle, in heavy-as-iron conditions that suited the Swede's game. Soderling played beautifully, free and easy. Yet, at the same time, he was ruthlessly aggressive. He attacked with big forehands and even bigger serves (one in the fourth set hit 140 miles per hour). He never stopped whacking -- especially on Federer's weak second serves.

Soderling was willing to trade unforced errors (42) for winners (49, nine more than Federer). And, in the critical moments, he was better, too. Soderling broke Federer's serve four times and lost his only twice.

Soderling is the first player to beat a defending champion at Roland Garros in back-to-back years since Mats Wilander defeated Yannick Noah in 1984 and Ivan Lendl in 1985. He is only the second man to defeat both Federer and Nadal in the same major (a year apart in Soderling's case); Juan Martin del Potro did it in back-to-back matches at last year's U.S. Open.

Soderling said he didn't think about his 0-12 record versus Federer coming in.

"Even though I lost so many times, I always had a chance to win," Soderling said. "I actually felt like I could have won a few. I thought I was a little bit unlucky.

"I lost a lot of times, so it feels great to end that streak."

Looking forward, Soderling will play Tomas Berdych, who was a 6-3, 6-1, 6-2 winner over Mikhail Youzhny. It is conceivable (perhaps even likely) there could be another matchup between Soderling and Nadal in the final.

"I really love to play on this court," Soderling said in an on-court interview. "Today I played really, really well. It cannot be much better, eh?"

After the fact, there will be questions about the conditions. This year's French Open has featured a number of matches played in constant rain. There were two stoppages during the match, the first coming at 5-all in the third set.

When the players returned, Federer was broken when he double-faulted and Soderling raced to net and stroked a forehand volley winner. The second delay couldn't save Federer. Soderling broke him at 4-all in the fourth, then served out the match easily and walked slowly to the net shaking his clenched fist.

The Soderling victory steals another piece of history from Federer, as well, if only temporarily. A victory would have given Federer the No. 1 ranking for a 286th week, tying him with Pete Sampras for the all-time record. Now, if Nadal wins the tournament, the proud Swiss player will fall to No. 2 for the second time inside two years.

"He's the biggest hitter off the ground I've ever seen," said John McEnroe, who broadcast the match on Tennis Channel, of Soderling. "He's so strong and puts so much into his shots. He forced Federer to rethink his strategy and got to Roger mentally."

"At some stage, you hope they [losses] don't happen, but they do," Federer said. "It was a great run. Now I've got the quarterfinal streak going."

Afterward, Federer reflected on his semifinal record.

"It's been an amazing streak. It started when I lost to Kuerten all those years ago. If I could have signed for all those semis back then, I would have. I'm very proud of that streak, and it's one of the greatest ones I have in my history book."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.