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Steve Flink: The Streak is Over

6/1/2010 5:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

PARIS--- Sitting in Philippe Chatrier Stadium on a dark and even ominous early evening, I watched history of a high order made by a towering Swede with an explosive game, a large heart, and an unwavering will to win. I saw Robin Soderling do something that no one else had been able to accomplish since 2004. Soderling toppled the mighty Roger Federer 3-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 in the quarterfinals, overcoming his Swiss rival for the first time in 13 career meetings, ending Federer’s astounding streak of making it to 23 consecutive semifinals at the Grand Slam events, reversing the result of the 2009 championship match at the French Open. I witnessed history as the No. 5 seed more than validated his status as a player of the front rank, knocking out a No. 1 seed for the second year in a row at the world’s premier clay court event, a feat last achieved by Mats Wilander in 1984-85.

More than anything else, this was the single most impressive display of unrelenting power and controlled backcourt aggression that I have ever seen on the Roland Garros clay. In the end, as was the case in the final of the 2009 U.S. Open when he was cut down in five tumultuous sets by the overpowering Juan Martin Del Potro on a much quicker hard court, Federer was essentially blasted off the court by a bigger and better hitter of the tennis ball on the day. No matter how hard he tried to disrupt the rhythm of his formidable rival with subtle changes of pace and well crafted backhand slices, regardless of where he tried to go with his serve, as determined as he was to find a way to make Soderling lose his nerve when it counted, Federer was unable to assert his authority or impose his will. The bottom line is that Soderling was not only unswerving in pursuit of a victory he sorely wanted, but he was also better on the biggest points, tougher under duress, sharper and more commanding down the stretch.

Here is how it all unfolded. With Soderling serving at 3-4 in the first set, he played one of his few loose games of the match, and Federer pounced. He got the break with some timely returns coupled with unprovoked mistakes from his adversary, and Federer served out the set easily. In that set, Federer connected with 77% of his first serves, won 15 of 17 first serve points (88%), and did not lose a point on his delivery. Altogether, he took 20 of 22 points on serve, and Soderling never had a chance to rock the Swiss Maestro back on his heels. All signs seemed to point to a Federer triumph as he controlled the tempo and set the tactical agenda throughout that opening set. But appearances were deceiving; never again would Federer enjoy that luxury.

At the start of the second set, Soderling broke Federer in the second game. He charged confidently to 3-0 and never lost his serve in that set. Federer was getting hit by an avalanche of ferocious forehands from Soderling, who was also driving the ball with immense pace and unerring consistency off his backhand side. Soderling also served with more deception and finer placement, picking up his numbers considerably. In the opening set he had won only 60% of his first serve points but he took 77% of those points in the second set, which made a big difference. Soderling served for the set at 5-3, made it quickly to 40-15, but in a rare moment of muddled thinking, he went for a 125 MPH ace on his second serve and missed it. At 40-30, he missed a routine two-hander into the net for deuce. But Soderling swiftly recovered his emotional equilibrium, served an ace to earn a third set point, and benefitted from a backhand unforced error from Federer. It was one set all. It was a brand new match. It was a wide open encounter.

The third set was undoubtedly the key to the entire contest. Both players settled into a groove on serve, giving nothing away, finding the corners, making the court look much faster than it was. Serving at 4-5, however, Soderling clearly recognized the magnitude of the moment. He fell behind 0-30 with a pair of glaring mistakes, then rallied to 30-30 with a gutsy forehand inside-out winner and an unstoppable first serve to the forehand. But then he made another unforced error--- this one off the backhand--- and the 25-year-old found himself set point down. He was virtually hanging over the net as he attempted to put away an overhead, but his technique and execution were less than stellar. Federer chased that smash down and hit an overhead of his own on the bounce. The Swiss did not try to hit that shot too hard, but it was directed down the line. Soderling had to leap for an arduous backhand overhead. Had he missed--- which was entirely possible under the circumstances--- he would have been down two sets to one, and winning from there was going to be terribly difficult.

Soderling was not found wanting. He produced a scintillating winner crosscourt to get back to deuce. He then cracked two service winners to the backhand to hold on for 5-5, and that was surely jarring for the 16 time Grand Slam tournament champion. Nevertheless, Federer advanced to 30-15 in the eleventh game before rain intervened. When the players returned about 70 minutes later, Federer got to 40-15. Then he rolled a forehand long down the line, drove another forehand crosscourt and long for deuce, and served his second and last double fault of the match to put himself break point down. Soderling seemed poised to run around his backhand for yet another devastatingly potent forehand return, but the double fault was astounding at that moment. At break point, Soderling made an excellent first serve return that set up a forehand inside-in winner. Now Soderling was serving for the set.

At 30-0 in that crucial twelfth game of the third set, Soderling inexplicably went for a huge second serve, double faulting long. He followed with an ace for 40-15. Federer saved one set point but Soderling aced him wide to the backhand at 40-30 to seal the set. Soderling had come from set point down to move out in front two sets to one, but the hard work was not over. With characteristic match playing verve and perspicacity, Federer raised his game strikingly at the start of the fourth set, playing an excellent game on serve to hold at 15, then breaking Soderling for the first time since the opening set. Soderling had a 40-15 lead in that second game of the fourth set, but made a forehand unforced error. Then Federer made a stupendous return off a huge first serve, and won that point by scampering in to retrieve a drop shot from Soderling and eventually making a forehand volley winner.

Soderling was briefly yet plainly rattled. Federer caught him off guard with a backhand down the line, drawing an error from Soderling. Then Federer played an outstanding defensive point to get the break for 2-0. He seemed exhilarated, as did the crowd. A fifth set seemed well within the realm of possibility, even probability. But Soderling stopped Federer right in his tracks. On the first point of that pivotal third game of the fourth set, Federer came in behind his patented inside out forehand. He did not hit the approach with enough pace or depth, and Soderling easily passed him down the line off the backhand. Soderling was buoyed by that point. He got to 0-40 by using his superb depth to elicit errors off the backhand and forehand sides of Federer. Federer got back to 15-40, but then missed with an inside-out forehand that was never in the cards. Soderling was back in business.

The Swede held on for 2-2. Both players followed with love games on serve. But at 3-3, Federer was down break point three times. He saved the first with an ace, lured Soderling into a running forehand error on the second, and finally forced another error from Soderling on the run. After five deuces in that game, Federer held on. He would not win another game. Soderling released two aces on his way to 4-4, holding at 30. The 4-4 game was indicative of the entire last three sets. Despite making five of six first serves, he could not gain the upper hand. Federer began that game by netting a forehand drop shot. He got back to 15-15 but then rolled a backhand crosscourt well wide. Now Soderling let loose with an overwhelming, relatively flat forehand crosscourt that was too much for Federer to handle. At 15-40, Federer sent out an ace down the T, but then he was soundly beaten to the punch in a backhand to backhand rally with the Swede. On the last stroke, Federer’s topspin shot off that side flew long.

Soderling was calm and purposeful when he served for the match at 5-4 in the fourth. After Federer connected beautifully with a clean topspin backhand winner down the line for 15-15, Soderling simply kept on the attack. His big first serve set up a penetrating forehand topspin approach that gave Federer no play on the backhand pass. At 30-15, Soderling rushed Federer into another error, and at double match point Federer erred for the last time off the forehand side. Match to Soderling  3-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 in precisely two-and-a-half hours, who remarkably won 66% of his second serve points in the fourth set while Federer was only at 53% in that significant category. A year ago, in very similar conditions with rain falling and the court exceedingly slow, Federer had taken Soderling apart in a straight set final, but on this occasion he was outplayed and even out-maneuvered. In the end, the slow court didn’t matter; Soderling was walloping the ball so brilliantly that he made the conditions look fast.  On Soderling goes to the penultimate round of the tournament. Back goes Federer to the drawing board, ready to defend his Wimbledon crown, in search of a seventh title on the fabled lawns of the All England Club.

The way I look at it, it all caught up with Federer. The last time he had failed to reach a semifinal at a major was at Roland Garros in 2004, when three time champion Guga Kuerten removed him in a straight set, third round contest. Since then, he had his share of close calls during his astonishing 23 tournament seminal streak. In 2004 at the U.S. Open, he faced Andre Agassi in a harrowing five set, two day battle in the quarters, coming away with a narrow win before going on to claim his first U.S. Open title. That was unusual in those days, because Federer so frequently ran through his opposition with regal ease.

That pattern began changing decidedly in 2008. At the 2008 Australian Open, he escaped 10-8 in the fifth set of a third round match against Janko Tipsarevic before losing in the semifinals to Novak Djokovic. At the U.S. Open that year, he went five sets in the third round with Igor Andreev before sweeping to the title. At the 2009 Australian Open, in another early round showdown, Tomas Berdych had him down two sets to love before experience pulled Federer through this fourth round match; he got to the final of that tournament before Rafael Nadal ousted him in five sets. And, of course, he was down two sets to love at Roland Garros a year ago against Tommy Haas, and trailed two sets to one against Del Potro in the semifinals. Federer, of course, managed to win that tournament to complete a career Grand Slam. Back in Australia this year, Federer was down 2-6, 1-3, 15-40 to Nikolay Davydenko in the quarters before rescuing himself in a four set win. Davydenko had beaten Federer the previous two times they had played. Yet, until today, he always survived in those pre-semifinal showdowns.

Where does Federer go from here? That will be fascinating to follow. In my view, he will still win at least two or three more majors, but his days of automatically reaching the semifinals of every major are over. Let’s face it: he has not won a tournament since the Australian Open, and it is a tougher task for him these days to keep raising his standards and his game to go deep into all of the Grand Slam championships. He is still in the latter stages of his prime, but more players are capable of beating him, even in the best of five set format where he has for so long thrived and even flourished. The climate has changed in his territory at the top, and deep in his soul, Federer seems to know it.

As for Soderling, he has some hard work ahead at Roland Garros. First he must deal with the remarkable Tomas Berdych, who has stormed into the semifinals without the loss of a set. Berdych beat Soderling when they last played in Miami, and he will be a daunting opponent for Soderling in the next round. If Soderling prevails, he would almost surely confront Rafael Nadal in the championship match, setting up a rematch of a 2009 round of 16 collision, when Soderling produced a startling four set upset of Nadal. He is the only player ever to beat the left-handed Spaniard at this event. For that reason alone, it would be a compelling clash that no serious tennis follower would want to miss.

And yet, no matter how Soderling fares at Roland Garros from here on in, he has raised his stock once more, demonstrated that he is a player to be reckoned with at all of the majors, and reaffirmed for us all that his run to the title round was not an accident. Only Del Potro can match Soderling’s astonishing pace off the ground; both of these big men hit the ball at blinding speeds off the forehand, and serve prodigiously as well. In any event, Robin Soderling has reminded us all that it won’t be too long before he secures his first major. I still believe Nadal will be the victor here, but Soderling is going to be an increasingly important player over the next couple of years.

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