I’ve been thinking about reviewing the best matches of 2010. For some reason though, I can’t think of many. There’s Nadal-Murray at the World Tour Finals, and, well, not much else that I can think of. Compared to 2009, when we had Nadal fending off Verdasco and Federer at the Australian Open, Nadal-Soderling along with some dramatic Federer matches in Paris, and then Roddick’s matches against Hewitt and Federer at Wimbledon, this year seems rather dull.
Maybe it’s because I didn’t watch as much tennis as I usually do. Or perhaps it seems 2010 wasn’t all that because the Grand Slam finals were one sided for the most part, whereas in previous years we had two classic Nadal-Federer finals, plus Del Potro and Roddick’s heroic efforts.
Maybe I feel the year was a bit of a letdown because my favorite players didn’t play as well as I would have liked. Unable to depend on Nalbandian and Davydenko, I was rooting for Federer at the Slams. He suffered three Slam defeats this season, and amongst all the matches played this year two of those matches stick out to me. At the time they were both bitterly disappointing, but in hindsight I think I have a better appreciation of what happened in those two games.
Soderling vs. Federer, Roland Garros Quarterfinal
I wanted a Federer versus Nadal final as much as anyone else, especially since the dynamics this time would be slightly different – it would be Nadal trying to reclaim his Roland Garros title from Federer. In retrospect, it seemed appropriate that Nadal would win back the title against the one man who had been able to beat him in Paris.
Reflecting back, it was also one of the most amazing displays of tennis this season and I can’t let the fan in me be upset about that. Coming into the match, the odds were stacked against Soderling. He had lost 12 straight matches against Federer, and had lost to him in straight sets at the same venue last year when the Swede had dismantled a host of other top players. Add to that, no man had beaten Federer before the semi final of a Slam since Kuerten in 2004.
The match began with all the makings of a routine Federer victory. He cruised to a one-set lead as I got ready to play tennis in the locker room at my club. When I left to play, Federer had had a slight lapse in concentration and Soderling had hung on to break serve. About an hour later, I reemerged into the changing room to see the match poised at one set all.
It was still too early to foresee an upset. Surely an opening for Federer lurked around in the corner. It would just be a matter of stepping it up at the right moment and then shifting into cruise control. Sure enough, Soderling was again a victim to his nerves against Federer, struggling at 4-5, 0-30.
On that point he had a look at a short ball and went for a big inside out forehand that just missed – triple set point for Federer! Except the umpire was down from his chair, and after inspecting the mark he reversed the lineperson’s call. 15-30. 30-30. A backhand error from the big guy, set point Federer.
This was the biggest point of the match thus far. Soderling did well on it initially, getting a simple volley after pushing Federer back, but he chose to smash it hard and mistimed it a bit. The ball leapt up off the ground and Federer pounced for an overhead off an overhead that he has on occasion been able to miraculously hit for winners in the past. But this time his shot wasn’t good enough as Soderling knocked off the high backhand volley.
By this time it was raining hard and the match had to be called off. I took the opportunity to drive home for the ending. By the time the match restarted, the atmosphere had significantly altered. The rained had soaked the court to make it terribly slow, and the heavy conditions were not easy to deal with. Plus the rain delay seemed to have disrupted Federer’s rhythm, as he immediately surrendered his serve.
In the past, Soderling’s had some trouble closing out against Federer. But this was a Soderling who just wouldn’t lose his cool. It’s like Magnus Norman had made use of a Men-In-Black memory zapper to erase off his losses to Federer during the rain delay.
Federer made a stand, getting ahead a break in the fourth set. But this match became more about Soderling for that hour or so. He refused to miss like a human ball machine programmed to outlast Davydenko and Agassi. His power was Del Potro-like. Except this wasn’t the fast DecoTurf at the US Open.
This was a rain soaked, Philippe Chatrier court where balls refused to penetrate the court. Even Federer’s forehand failed to make inroads. But there was Soderling, serving bombs like his game was engineered for a rainy day. Something had to give, and it wasn’t going to be Robin’s nerve. It was Federer who caved in, pressing too much as he ran out of ideas.
At or close to his best, Federer has seldom been made to look helpless on the court, but this was one of those times. And I think tennis fans, whether supporters of Federer or not, are richer for the experience of having witnessed such a spectacle. And it had to be that spectacular to finish off one of the most remarkable achievements in tennis history – Federer’s streak of 23 consecutive Grand Slam semi finals.