Robin Soderling, all 6ft 4in, 192 pounds of him, has looked like a man on a mission ever since his first day in Rotterdam.
In fact, the has Swede looked every inch the No. 4 in the world that he has been for more than a month.
And after an impressive defence of his Netherlands’ title in the 10,000 capacity Ahoy stadium, he will hold onto that top-four ranking for a little longer yet.
His defeat of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a three-set powerhouse of a match, which rocketed through a mere one hour and 23 minutes, is Soderling’s first back-to-back victory in one tournament and his eighth ATP title from 18 finals. It is already his second title in 2011, and comes on top of his first Masters crown in Paris last November.
But Soderling came to Rotterdam with a point to prove, and this will smooth the ruffled fur on his hackles after an unexpected defeat at the hands of Alexandr Dolgopolov in the fourth round at the Australian Open—even though that was his best performance so far in Melbourne.
Soderling makes no secret enjoying Rotterdam as much as any event on the tour, and it was immediately clear that he felt very at home on its indoor courts. He opened in his usual domineering style with a first-round straight sets win, but was then pushed to the limit by some dangerous opponents.
Philipp Kohlschreiber played his best all-court heart out to win a match point in the second round, but finally lost in a third-set tie-breaker. Soderling then faced the man he beat in last year’s final, No. 11-ranked Mikhail Youzhny. Together, they produced two hours of top-quality tennis that belied the 6-4, 7-6 scoreline. There were, in fact, just four points between them out of the 160 played.
Soderling faced yet another big challenge in his semi against the new top-20 entrant, Victor Troicki.
The Serb, as he had against Marin Cilic in the quarters, took a few games to warm up and Soderling quickly broke to lead 4-1. But Troicki surged back with nine straight points to level at 4-4. The Swede drew on all his new-found composure in the face of impressive serving—the two men were nip-and-tuck in aces and first serve percentages—and broke at the key moment to take the first set 7-5.
Soderling then cranked things up, winning love service games in barely 60 seconds with a scattering of 142 mph serves. Troicki was eventually broken down, 6-4.
So the final, against the powerful and charismatic Tsonga, always promised to be a treat.
The Frenchman, starting to find his best tennis after another year plagued by injury—both knee and hip—was after his sixth title and had lost only one set on his way to the final. He also benefited from a walkover in the quarters and a below-par Ivan Ljubicic performance in the semis.
Both Soderling and Tsonga like to play an aggressive game of pace and power, and the fast Rotterdam courts showed off their prowess in all departments.
Soderling, with a support around his right knee indicating the rigors of his tournament thus far, started well and broke Tsonga’s opening serve. But then the Frenchman started moving the Swede around the court more effectively and the 3-0 advantage was pulled back.
Come the seventh game, Soderling regained his focus and won a love game to stop Tsonga’s run. That was enough to bring the glint back into the Swede’s eyes and he forced the break for a 5-3 lead. It was the work of a minute to serve out the set 6-3.
In the second set, Tsonga upped his aggression and began to find his very best serving: nine aces and a 68 percent first serve average. That supported his serve-and-volley attack, and Soderling went break points down at 2-3. He found some great touch at the net to save two of them, but Tsonga broke on the third.
The Frenchman is a player to feed off both adrenalin and the crowd, and he drank deeply from both. Notching up an 11th ace, he led 5-2 and found two more aces in serving out the set 6-3.
By the third set, it had become a ‘who-blinks-first’ serve-off. Soderling had the advantage of stepping to the line first and showed remarkable composure in holding his own against a Tsonga riding a wave of confidence.
By the sixth game, Tsonga had reached ace number 20, finding big rewards in the backhand corner of the ad court, and he had lost just one point on his serve in the set. But 3-3 became a turning point.
Soderling made an emphatic hold of serve to love, finding two aces of his own and a stunning backhand volley pick-up from his feet for a drop-shot winner. Then Tsonga went 15-40 down on his own serve, and an over-hit off-forehand conceded the break.
Soderling finds a chilling look when he pounces for the kill, and that is what appeared now.
He served out the match as he had started it, finishing with a bullet-like ace—his 12th of the match and seventh of the set. A first serve average in the first two sets of 63 percent jumped to 88 percent in the third: that’s 21 out of 24 first serves. In any other circumstances, Tsonga’s average of 67 would look outstanding: on this occasion, it was not enough.
Tsonga will, and should, draw huge confidence from his Rotterdam performance, and from the final in particular. He now heads to the 250 in Marseille, and will revel in the company of his home crowd.
When he looks at the draw, though, he will again see the lupine figure of Soderling prowling as a possible final opponent. Should it pan out that way—and much may depend upon the health of the No. 2 seed, Tomas Berdych, who once more sits in Tsonga’s half—the French crowd will have to work their magic to lift their man to a first win in five attempts over the Swede.
As for Soderling, he is continuing to show that he is a man to be reckoned with come the North American Masters. He reached the semis of both Indian Wells and Miami last year and is now, in all sorts of ways, a better player.
His time under the intelligent and calming eye of Magnus Norman last year took Soderling to the best results of his career: two titles (one of them his first Masters) and three other finals (one the French Open).
But his ambition clearly continues to grow.
It came as a surprise when he announced a split from Norman in December to take up with Claudio Pistolesi, but Soderling devoted his off-season to developing his net game and mobility, and that work with Pistolesi showed in his tennis in Rotterdam. He picked off plenty of volleys with some very deft touch and, more importantly, chased down the short shots of his opponent when required.
He is wily and astute, hard-working and focused. He also, as he himself said in Rotterdam, aims “to be aggressive and take the initiative—that’s when I play my best tennis.”
The other men should not take their eyes off him for a moment: Soderling’s beady look is focused on them, and he looks hungry.