Soderling exposes Federer's flaws
There were a few moments there Tuesday when it appeared Roger Federer might be able to fend off the hard charges of Robin Soderling in the French Open quarterfinals, when his precise game might be able to cut a few wires loose in the Swede’s electrifying attack.
But those moments turned into milliseconds, and Federer fell into a pre-dominance time warp, as he was completely whipped by a stronger and more physically imposing player in a 3-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 defeat — the first time in the past 24 Grand Slams he has lost before the semifinals.
Records aside for the man who has broken just about every mark in sight, it was a humbling defeat, as the taller Soderling showed in heavy and often wet conditions that the smaller and less muscular Federer can be had. It took Soderling 13 attempts against the great Swiss to prove that, but in the last three sets he hammered Federer in every department.
Despite the cool temperatures, he boomed one ace or service winner after another. He absolutely tore apart the Swiss’ second serves, smoking gigantic returns at his feet, moving forward and crushing eye-popping groundstrokes to the open court. His inside-out forehand found the line again and again, and in the last two sets, it seemed he was always close to the net, waiting to put away an overhead.
Federer wasn’t allowed to get into points on Soderling’s service games, and Soderlnig seemed to be in every one of the Swiss’. There was no beauty in the victory for Soderling, only demolition. Like Juan Martin del Potro did to Federer in the 2010 U.S. Open final, Soderling simply hit through the 16-time Grand Slam titlist.
Federer wasn’t terribly disappointed, but it was certainly a wake-up call.
“Look, I don't mind slow clay,” Federer said. “When it gets rainy, it's tough. Not only for me, but for the opponent, too, usually. It's hard, because you never know when it's going to be interrupted. Your mind starts wandering. It was tough conditions. I guess today they favored him, but I really felt like he played great. He was able to hit consistently through the ball, and on the offensive I put them close to the lines. That's something that was impressive.”
The last time Federer failed to reach the semis of a Grand Slam was when he lost to three-time Roland Garros champion Gustavo Kuerten in the third round in 2004. That was a long time ago, and the Brazilian was a much different player than the Swede, a speedy man with variety, speed and, of course, a decent amount of power.
Soderling is a much more straightforward player, not the type who excites the traditionalists, who would prefer to see an eclectic mix of spins, strokes and shotmaking rather than just a big man hitting as hard as he can to open spots.
But that’s the type of player that Soderling is. Last year, when he lost to Federer in three of the four majors, including the Roland Garros final, he was fit and fairly lethal, but was still lacking in a little self-belief. After another year of competition, he began to trust himself more. He’s actually craving the big moments now, which is why the 25-year-old No. 5 seed stood tall during Federer’s openings.
Federer had set point in the ninth game of the third set and almost took care of it with when he responded to an overhead from Soderling with one of his own from way off the court near the back wall. Federer launched a heavily spun shot that looked like it was headed for a winner, but, somehow, Soderling leapt up in the air and cut it off with a high backhand volley from behind his head.
“The backhand smash he hit, he catches with the frame a little bit,” Federer recalled. “That was kind of a hard shot to hit. That kind of shot from my side with the smash and stuff is very unusual. But he played aggressive and kept on coming.”
While Federer recognized before the match that Soderling is a good player, there was no way he expected the Swede to play that well for such a sustained period. One of the reasons Soderling has won only even one decent-sized ATP title (2010 Rotterdam) is because he has been inconsistent, both physically and mentally. He’s a late bloomer who usually goes through highs and lows in matches, and on Tuesday, he really didn’t have any lows.
“I played a better match today than last year's finals,” he said. “It’s difficult playing in your first Grand Slam final, no doubt. Now I am in there and I played on the center court a couple of times. It was a little bit easier this time. Losing so many times (to him), I think you will come closer to a win eventually.”
Like Tomas Berdych — the Czech whom he will meet in the semifinals, who crushed Mikhail Youzhny, 6-3, 6-1,6-2 — Soderling has been an underachiever, full of talent but never able to put it together. The two play a lot alike, displaying raw power and little finesse, but when they are executing well, they are world-beaters.
Federer, 28, has done just about everything he has been called upon to accomplish in his sport and cannot be expected to win one major after another as the years advance. He’s just one week shy of equaling Peter Sampras’ record of 286 weeks at the top of the rankings and could lose the spot if Rafael Nadal wins the title.
“As far as the No. 1 ranking is concerned, it’s in (Nadal’s) hands now,” he said. Things change really quickly. I won’t be following the rest of the tournament and hoping that Nadal doesn’t win just so that I stay on top. The best player should win, and he’s the best at the moment.”
But the day really belonged to Soderling, who with his win over Nadal last year and victory over Federer on Tuesday, became the first player to beat a defending champion at Roland Garros in back-to-back years since Mats Wilander took out Yannick Noah in 1984 and Ivan Lendl in 1985.
Soderling said he was happy to have accomplished the feat, but there are bigger tasks ahead for a man who will no longer settle for second place.
“I don't think about who I beat,” he said. “What matters is that I won quarterfinals in a Grand Slam and I get the opportunity to play semifinals in two days, which is great.”