In the quarterfinal that was supposed to be the all-Spaniard clash of Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco, tennis fans will instead witness the giant-killer Robin Soderling against current world No. 11 Nikolay Davydenko.
Soderling leads their head-to-head meeting 3-2, including their two meeting on clay.
The 6’4, nearly 200-pound Swede could easily be the villain of a boxing movie. With his towering size and enormous power, he is the Clubber Lang, the Ivan Drago, or the Max Baer of this year’s Roland Garros, having knocked out the popular champion Nadal in the previous round.
Also, thanks to his reputation for surliness and tendency toward confrontation (especially with Nadal), the towering Soderling has thus far won few hearts and minds to go with his upset victory.
Nearing age 25, the Swede has scored the biggest win of his career at an opportune time, and now will be looking to follow-up. Soderling’s serve reached 140 mph in his last match, and he hit 61 winners to Nadal’s 33; if he can sustain that level of play, he will be an RG semifinalist.
Since his breakthrough in 2005, the Russian has remained the most overlooked member of the top 10. This year’s RG has been no different: Davydenko has won his first three matches while receiving very little attention, and on the day he finally scored a big win—a straight-sets thrashing of Verdasco—all eyes were on Soderling’s win over Nadal.
The undersized Russian has long been a threat at the majors, having reached the latter rounds of all of them save Wimbledon. With the retirement of Andre Agassi and the decline of Marat Safin, Davydenko is the cleanest hitter left in men’s tennis, and his speed and consistency make him simply relentless.
The Game Plan:
Were this a prize fight, the 5’10, 140-pound Russian counterpuncher would be out of his weight class. However, were it a job interview, Davydenko’s 14 career titles (including two Master’s Series wins) would dwarf the accomplishments of the Swede, who has won only three pro events in his career and is making his first ever appearance in the second week of a major.
Soderling’s serve and forehand, ugly as they may be, are weapons, and that’s more than we can say of any shot Davydenko possesses. The Russian can keep the Swede in an uncomfortable position, however, by using his early, accurate groundstrokes and superior service returning to keep Soderling on the run, and hopefully take away his legs.
The Mental Edge:
Steve Tignor at Tennis.com deserves a bit of bragging rights. In the first round of last year’s RG, he watched Soderling club the very tough Argentine Juan Monaco into submission, then said that the Swede had the game to beat anyone, even Nadal on clay.
Of course, this statement was forgotten when, in round three, Soderling flamed out against Julien Benneteau, easily winning set one, dropping set two in a tiebreaker and winning just one game thereafter. Results like this, and the fact the Soderling has never had to follow-up a major win before, are Davydenko’s best hopes.
Furthermore, his win over Verdasco should make it clear that a big forehand by itself does not equal success against the speedy Russian.
But Davydenko is not exactly free of pressure: With the fall of Nadal, there may be no better chance to reach a major final. Should he overcome Soderling, Davydenko’s semifinal opponents would be Andy Murray or Fernando Gonzalez, both of whom he has known success against.
Good luck picking a winner here.