Something funny has happened to Robin Soderling over the past year and a half: He has become reliable.
His serve got more consistent, he started hammering those forehands more authoritatively, and he began believing that he could beat the best. Furthermore, he believed he could do it at the game’s most recognized venues.
Go back to the start of 2009 and you see a pattern emerge: Something, perhaps the weather, or maybe the travel, bothers him down under, and he loses early at the Australian Open. In between the AO and Roland Garros, he does little of note, but something about Paris in the springtime turns this young man’s thoughts to stunning upsets.
Most of the tennis-viewing public had just a vague idea of who this tall young Swede with the bizarre forehand windup was when he handed Rafael Nadal his first-ever defeat at Roland Garros. But there he was, consistently pushing the then-No. 1 Spaniard onto his back foot, driving approach shots and coming in for stunningly easy put-away volleys.
We knew who he was in 2010’s event, but he’d had a quiet first half of the year, winning just one minor title in February, losing in round one in Australia and not really threatening for any of the Master’s Shields. But the RG changed him, as he lost just seven games in his first two matches, crushed fellow big man Marin Cilic and then again stunned the world.
This time it was then-No. 1 Roger Federer, 12-0 against Soderling going into the match, having lost just two sets to the Swede, and having made the semifinals of his previous 23 majors. But again, Soderling’s forehand pushed his smaller, but more accomplished opponent around the court. Again, his less-complete game was irrelevant, because the other man couldn’t find a way to put him on the defensive for a significant length of time.
And again he moved on to the semis, out-dueling a fellow huge hitter (Fernando Gonzalez last year; Tomas Berdych this time) to set up a date with another champion with seeking to end a losing a streak at the majors. In the 2009 final, Federer broke him four times, retrieved his forehand blasts and exposed his suspect movement.
In 2010? Substitute “Nadal” for “Federer,” and you’ve heard the tale.
In the months that followed the RG, Soderling has not revealed himself to be much of a player of second- and third-tier events. He’s won five events in his career, but only two since his breakthrough in Paris last year. Two is better than none, certainly, but just as a matter of perspective—Sam Querrey has won five in the same time frame.
And Querrey hasn’t been nearly as threatening at the majors. In the past two Wimbledons, Soderling has rebounded from his French finals disappointment by plowing through his first few rounds and requiring the same player who beat him in Paris to stop him again in a highly competitive encounter.
At the US Open, he has continued the trend, having reached the quarters of the event for the second straight year.
And, for the second straight time, he’ll play Federer.
The USO quarters of 2009 may well have been a turning point for the big Swede, even though he again went home defeated. After surrendering the first set 6-0 and falling behind a break in the second, the 200-pound Swede grew some more, finding the range on his serve and holding it the rest of the way. He even found a way to win a set from The Great Swiss in the third set tiebreak, and pushed the fourth to another tiebreaker before falling.
It’s not a stretch to imagine that this match taught him to believe that he could stay with Federer; something he remembered next spring.
This year, despite a five-set scare in Round 1, Soderling has predictably made the second week of the Open. Will his encounter with Federer here represent another turning point?
He certainly will be glad to have had the experience of that Roland Garros win from earlier this year. But the US Open is a very different venue, where the fast court will not so easily allow the big man to push the nimble Swiss around the court for three sets. And unlike in Paris, hard court matches also don’t ever continue during a mild drizzle, making the ball heavier and putting the lighter Federer at a disadvantage.
Today, Soderling will have to find a new way if he’s to win. If he can, he may become a reliable presence at the later stages of Grand Slams.
If he can’t, this pattern may continue, on and on …