Robin Soderling first surprised us in Paris, when he did something no man had ever done previously: He beat Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros.
It was a dream match for the Swede and introduced him as Le Sod, he of the sky-high ball toss that accentuated its thunderous pace and the windmill forehand that, for at least one day, even Nadal couldn’t retrieve.
They were perfect conditions for Le Sod to cultivate his image: Nadal’s heavy-spinning forehand actually sits up in the 6’4” Swede’s strike zone, and the extra fractions of a second provided by French clay gave him plenty of time to wind up and rip the ball off his dominant wing.
Then there’s his contentious relationship with the Spaniard—years before getting our attention as a player, Soderling grabbed it with his personality, unsubtly imitating Nadal’s crack-picking during their 2007 Wimbledon encounter.
This may have forever earned him the animus of one of the tour’s most popular players: Nadal has called the Swede “very strange” and suggested that Soderling will one day answer for his behavior “in the end of the life.” However, it helped suggest that Le Sod was a rough, intimidating prospect for opponents.
If one calls that match a dream, his encounter with Roger Federer in the RG final must have been a nightmare on par with the “falling dream” or the “went to school in just my underpants” variety. On that Sunday in June, The Great Swiss used his low slice backhand, fluid movement, and indecipherable service placement to turn Le Sod into Sir Robin the Deferential.
Federer broke Soderling three times in the first set of that encounter, hit an ace on every point he served in the second-set tiebreaker, and didn’t face a break point until the third set (which he promptly swatted away).
Afterwards, the hulking Swede, taken completely out of his game by the Swiss, was all compliments for the victor. In the post-match interview, he admitted that he had never played well against Federer because the Swiss “makes” him play poorly.
Despite the puncturing of his brutish image, Soderling continued to have an impressive summer. It took Federer to stop him yet again in the fourth round of Wimbledon, a result the Swede followed up by winning in Bastad.
An injury derailed him somewhat in the summer, but his performance in the US Open showed him back on track, as he manhandled the rising American Sam Querrey and got past the indomitable eighth-seeded Russian Nikolay Davydenko.
In the quarters of the Open on Wednesday, the now 12th-seeded Soderling again faced Federer, who is now seeking his 16th major and sixth consecutive US Open. After his previous defeats from The Great Swiss, one of the biggest questions ahead of time was whether Federer would see Le Sod or Sir Robin across the net.
It didn’t start out as bad as in Paris. Rather, it was much, much worse than that. After being denied a pair of break point chances in the opening game, Sir Robin was broken at love in the second. The windy conditions probably interfered with his high service toss and enormous forehand backswing, but the biggest problem was on the opposite side of the court.
Federer retrieved the forehand blasts the Swede did successfully launch, and the constant variation in the Swiss' groundstrokes—from slice to heavy spinning moonballs to sharply angled drives—exposed Soderling's relatively poor movement.
Sir Robin lost the first seven games of the match. Even after he had gotten on the board, the numbers were astonishing: Soderling had put a little more than 70 percent of his first serves into play but was 0-for-7 on all his second-serve points.
Finally, after a double fault, Sir Robin put his considerable weight behind a swing, cracking his racket frame on the Arthur Ashe Stadium’s asphalt. It was, up to that point, his most effective stroke of the evening, as it got the attention of the New York crowd, which had been lulled into disinterest by the one-sided contest.
Furthermore, it seemed to wake Le Sod from hibernation. Though he lost the second set 6-3, he finally settled into a groove on his serve and his baseline play and wouldn’t be broken again. He had to hold numerous times for it to come to fruition, but it eventually would in the third-set tiebreak he won by the paper-thin margin of 8-6.
In 12 meetings, it’s the second set Soderling has ever won against Federer.
He held his own with The Great Swiss in set four, again forcing a tiebreak. Again the score was 8-6, only this time in Federer’s favor.
Soderling couldn’t get the W against Federer, but then again, neither have the Swiss’ previous 38 opponents at the Open, dating back to 2004.
Federer advances to the semis to face Novak Djokovic and will be favored to reach yet another final. Soderling goes home, probably in preparation for the fall European indoor circuit.
He would appear to have won nothing tangible from his quarterfinal result. Psychologically, though, he accomplished a great deal.
He has shown he can push Federer in unfavorable circumstances. He's shown he can get off the mat after an early disappointment. Most importantly, on an ever-evolving men’s tour, Soderling has shown that the 2009 RG was no fluke: He belongs in the top 10 and can stay there a while.
This makes twice that he’s surprised us: Next time we won’t be.