Tomorrow features the most promising match-up on the men's side of the tournament so far—a repeat of last years final between the defending champion Roger Federer and Swedish prodigy and runner-up Robin Söderling. Who will emerge as winner and make his way towards the semi's, where either Thomas Berdych or Mikhail Youzhny will wait for the man who prevails? Let us first take a look at the numbers:
12 is the number of times they've met since their first meeting in 2004.
12 is the number Federer came out on top.
2 is the number of sets Söderling has taken off the Swiss Maestro in those matches.
23 is the number of Federer's consecutive Grand Slam semi-final appearances.
The stats seem to give but one answer: Federer will come out on top yet again against the late blooming, brutal ball-bashing Söderling. However, as much as the stats might tell about Roger having a perfect record against Robin, most of those matches were relatively close on the scoreline and involved a great number of tiebreaks or 7-5 wins.
Moreover, stats can only tell you so much—in the end, the battle is fought on court, not before—though their head-to-head record may give Roger a psychological advantage going into the match.
A year ago, few non-affectionate tennis fans knew much about Robin Söderling. That all changed in the matter of an afternoon when the confident Söderling blew clay court king Nadal off court in four sets, handing the Spaniard his first ever defeat at Roland Garros and in best-of-five matches on clay. Coached by former world No. 2, Magnus Norman, had finally matured as a player.
Three matches later, however, he was dismantled by Roger Federer, who showed almost surgical precision in his game plan. Söderling had no answers as Federer took away his hard-hitting weapons by changing the game and the pace over and over.
Afterwards Söderling graciously said something along the lines 'I've always thought I played bad, whenever I play against you. Now I realize you are the one who makes me play bad'.
One year after, the former indoor specialist now is an established all surface player enjoying his rightful spot just outside the big four (are we back to two again?) at the top of the sport.
Both Federer and Söderling have played very well in their first four matches, handing out bagels and 1's. In fact, Söderling has looked even more dominant than the mighty Nadal, when he only lost 7 games in his first two matches (Nadal lost 13). His third round match against Spanish clay-court specialist Albert Montanes (who beat Federer in straight three weeks ago) provided his first real challenge and loss of set, but he came out on top none the less.
In the next match, he allowed the promising Marin Cilic a mere 10 games. His serve is rock solid and among the best in the game with 200 on average on the first and 160! on the second.
A couple of weeks ago, many doubted that Federer would be able to tune his game in in time after a very tame spring by his high standards.
So far, he has proven the doubters wrong yet again and it seems as if there is one sure thing in tennis it is this:
Roger Federer will be top-tuned whenever a Grand Slam comes along.
He hasn't lost a set yet, and has shown signs of brilliance employing his drop shots, his forehand and the beautiful but at times vulnerable one-handed backhand.
And the winner will be?
So what are we to think? Who will come out on top? On the one hand, Söderling is yet to show that he can come up with a new game plan, when Federer use his own weapons against him or simply confuses him with his variety and by taking the pace of the ball.
On the other hand, Söderling has hardly ever played better than he is playing now and Del Potro's win against Federer in the US Open final shows that Federer doesn't always find a way to win against the hard-hitters. If conditions aren't too windy and too damp, Söderling might have more than a decent chance for the second biggest upset of his career at the same stage where he shocked the tennis world and provided us with perhaps the biggest upset of the last decade.
My best guess? Söderling's style of game is more of a threat to Rafa than to Federer who always seem to find a way to outwit and outfox him. I figure that is the most likely scenario again tomorrow, but I am far from sure. If Söderling manages to get away with either the first or the second set, I'm betting it will be really close.
Result: Federer in four, possibly five.
Further note: I believe the winner, be it Federer or Söderling, will go on to meet Nadal in the final. If I'm right, it will be a fantastic match-up—either between the king and his conqueror or between the two greatest players of our time.