Creature Vs. Creature: It's All About Soderling
For Fernando Gonzalez's side, see Long John Silver's take.
Even for an era of increased forehand velocity, the semifinal matchup between Robin Soderling and Fernando Gonzalez promises exceptionally hard hitting.
Gonzo is known for hitting shots off the forehand wing clocked at nearly 110 mph, and Soderling’s windmill motion helped him accomplish what no one else has ever done: beat Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros.
They have met seven times in their careers, with Gonzalez winning the last four.
The towering Swede has always been known as a massive hitter, but no one expected the truly massive news he made this past week by overpowering Nadal in round four. This was largely due to his dominant wing, but Soderling also stayed on the offensive with his two-handed backhand and a serve that topped 130 mph.
This followed a solid, if not exceptional first week, but he has most definitely ramped up his performance, showing no letdown in his straight-set battering of Nikolay Davydenko in the quarters, surrendering just five games. Against two of the quickest, best defenders in tennis, Soderling racked up a combined 95 winners in seven sets. In the process, he stunned the tennis world.
Will Win If
Gonzalez is capable of hitting heavy spin off his dominant wing, but it’s his extremely hard, flat laser of a forehand that's his biggest weapon. That’s something found in neither Nadal or Davydenko’s arsenal, so Soderling may find himself on the defensive a bit more than he was against them.
Not much more, though, since the Swede plays more offensively with the backhand and serves bigger than the Chilean. In fact, if he wins Soderling’s serve is likely to be a big reason why: He put 64 percent of his first serves in against both Nadal and Davydenko, but won 62 percent of second serve points against the Spaniard and 72 against the Russian.
In the semis, both men will be looking to follow up their own first serves with groundstroke winners and attack the other’s second serve. If Soderling succeeds in winning more than 60 percent of his second serve points on Friday, he will be a Roland Garros finalist on Sunday.
Will Lose If
All three of Soderling’s career titles have been on indoor carpet, yet he has done an admirable job in maintaining his footing on the clay so far. Even so, he won’t want to be in a defensive position for much of this match, as his retrieving skills are not of the sort that can counter the kind of firepower Gonzo is sure to bring. Gonzo is also certainly faster than the Swede, and can better afford to be on the defensive for a short time.
But probably the worst thing that could happen to Soderling at this point would be for his bubble to burst: He’s been playing at what is for him (and maybe anybody) an unprecedented level, seeing the world’s largest ball of twine rather than a small yellow Penn every time he winds up. If reality sets in between now and his match with Gonzo, then his chances of losing go up considerably; if not, pencil him in to Sunday’s final on your personal draw sheet.
What goes through the mind of the player who has just played the two best matches of his life, and will be expected to deliver a third? Soderling’s toughest mental test was probably his quarterfinal match, when he faced a tough veteran in Davydenko who was willing and more than able to exploit any decline in the Swede’s play.
Soderling passed that test emphatically, so perhaps the pressure will be lighter for the semis. This match really is about the Swede; as incredible as the Chilean can be to watch, he’s never pulled off a win as big as Soderling’s topping Nadal. If the Swede can make a spectator out of the Spaniard, he can do the same to Gonzalez.
Shots to Look For
If Soderling is to win more than 60 percent of his second serve points, there are a couple of things he has to do: 1) He needs to be the one winning the majority of points involving forehand-to-forehand exchanges, and 2) he should be able to counter Gonzo’s hard forehand-to-backhand approaches by keeping his flat two-hander deep.
Also, look for Soderling’s backhand to be more effective at returning serve than Gonzalez’s.
Both of these men certainly have their strengths (both literally and metaphorically), but their greatest assets are the same, and neither is known for their depth. That’s why I contend that this match will not be a nail-biter.
If Gonzalez succeeds in bringing Soderling down to earth, it could be over in three-four quick sets. If not, it may be over just as quickly. I’m expecting the latter, with the Swede triumphing in a not-so-tight four.
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