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Steve Flink: Soderling Bows Out

9/9/2010 4:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

FLUSHING MEADOWS—Along with so many other devoted observers of this game, I eagerly anticipated last night’s quarterfinal here between Roger Federer and Robin Soderling. It was their first meeting since Soderling upended Federer in the quarterfinals of the French Open. It was a chance for the Swede to demonstrate that his Roland Garros heroics were no accident, an opportunity for Federer to exact some revenge on Soderling and prove that he can still more than hold his own against the game’s biggest hitters, and an invitation for the fans to sit back and watch a potentially great match.

What they got instead was an often breathtaking display of free flowing tennis from Federer, who put on a majestic display of shot making, and served stupendously despite a terribly burdensome wind. They saw the man many consider the best player of all time performing close to the peak of his powers. They observed the Swiss Maestro’s incomparable elegance and his supreme execution. They watched a revitalized 29-year-old who has already claimed a record 16 Grand Slam championships playing his sport with unbridled passion and making his presence known every step of the way.

Federer thoroughly deserved his 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 triumph under the lights in Arthur Ashe Stadium. He was primed for the occasion, determined to avoid a third consecutive quarterfinal defeat at a major, and clearly delighted to be facing a dangerous adversary with so much at stake. He found an incentive to bring out his best and the way he approached this contest was commendable. Knowing full well that the skeptics were still questioning his authority after his losses to Soderling in Paris and Tomas Berdych at Wimbledon, Federer went into this encounter in an excellent frame of mind. He did not care what any of us thought about his chances; his only concern was raising his game to suit the occasion, and he did just that.

In plain and simple terms, Federer was exemplary against Soderling. His court coverage was the best it has been in a long time. Soderling challenged Federer severely over and over again with potent crosscourt forehands and penetrating backhands down the line, but Federer was handling the running forehand sublimely and he took away many of the Swede’s weapons with his alacrity around the court, his  excellent anticipation, and his outstanding footwork. In many ways, Federer was nothing short of stupendous.

But Soderling’s performance was less than impressive. He never came to terms with the ferocity of the wind in Ashe Stadium. He did not alter his high ball toss in any way, did not find a way as Federer did so often to make the wind his friend rather than an enemy, and he conveyed a striking negativity and disillusionment. Soderling did not look like the fifth best player in the world. He was wooden and intractable, frustrated and indecisive. Whenever Federer served with the wind at his back, he made that work entirely to his advantage, but Soderling never did. His uneasiness and lack of confidence was always evident, and yet he had his share of openings.

The first set of the match was crucial. Soderling had come back from a set down to oust Federer in four at Roland Garros, but he did want to be back in that position again on the hard courts in New York. Soderling was somewhat unlucky at the outset of the contest. He served into the wind to start the match, held on commendably at 30, and seemed buoyed by that development as he changed ends of the court. Now Federer had to serve into that immense wind, and he struggled. Federer fell behind 30-40 in the second game, and hit a forehand that was called long. For an instant, it seemed as if Soderling had a quick and important 2-0 lead, but that was not case.

Federer wisely challenged the call, and the replay showed that his shot hit the back edge of the baseline. The point should have been replayed, but inexplicably the umpire gave the point to Federer. It was a judgment call on the umpire’s part, and Soderling justifiably protested, but that was to no avail. The score was deuce. Nonetheless, Soderling had two more break points in that game, which Federer wiped away with a service winner and an ace. The five time U.S. Open champion held on for 1-1. When Federer served at 2-3, he double faulted at 40-30, and then Soderling earned himself his fourth break point of the set. He made a first rate backhand return down the line off a first serve, but Federer hit a superb running forehand crosscourt, keeping hit shot low, forcing Soderling into an errant shot on the run. At game point, Federer hit a heavy kick serve out wide to the backhand, and Soderling could not handle the awkward return on his two-hander at full stretch.

It was 3-3, but Soderling must have been distressed. He had lost out on four break point opportunities over two different service games, and instead of perhaps closing in on a one set lead, he stood at 3-3. In the seventh game, he was up 30-15 but drove a down the line backhand approach well out of court. Federer went on to break Soderling with an exquisite forehand drop shot winner hit into the wind. In his last two service games of that opening set, Federer did not concede a point, connecting with seven of eight first serves. He was up a set, and would never look back.

In the second set, Federer’s serving remained magnificent early on. He served two aces in a love game to get to 1-1, and then broke Soderling for 2-1 as the Swede double faulted into the net to conclude that game. Federer was broken in the following game, and then Soderling rolled to 2-2, 40-0. Federer lofted a weak return into the wind, and Soderling tried to take his overhead on the bounce. He bungled that shot badly, then missed a forehand wildly, then drove a two-hander long. Federer broke Soderling with an inside-out forehand pass, and that was a cruel blow to the Swede’s self conviction.

Federer was soaring again. He held at love for 4-2 with two more aces, and he closed out that set with ease. Serving at 5-4, he held at 15, opening and closing that game with aces. Federer was right where he wanted to be, ahead two sets to love, brimming with optimism. Soderling was clearly disgruntled by the wind, but he did serve better in the third set. Having not served even one ace across the first two sets, Soderling produced two in the third set. At 3-4, 30-40, Federer stepped around for his trademark inside-out forehand, a shot he had been hitting remarkably well all night.

But with the wind at his back, Federer drove that forehand wide. Soderling had the break for 5-3, and gave a fist pump to celebrate the moment. Although he had to serve into the wind in the ninth game, he seemed poised to take the set and climb back into the match. But Soderling had celebrated too soon. He opened that critical 5-3 game with a double fault, and that was jarring to say the least. He did manage to get to 30-30, but then he made a pair of unforced errors off his unusually vulnerable forehand side to lose his serve. In the following game, Federer missed six consecutive first serves, but still held for 5-5. Both players sensed the end now. Federer broke a distraught Soderling for 6-5, and closed out the account with a love game on serve, releasing aces on the last two points.

Federer made good on 64% of his first serves, served 18 aces, and won 86% of his first serve points. He hit 36 winners, 20 more than Soderling. For Soderling, it was not the night he would have wanted. After reaching his second French Open final in a row, he has been beaten by Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and now by Federer in the same round at the U.S. Open. That is no disgrace. But what I did not like about Soderling’s duel with Federer was his complete lack of flexibility and his downcast demeanor. Here is a man who had lost to Federer the first 12 times they clashed until Roland Garros this year.  He should have wanted to go out and show that he really meant business this time around. He needed to send a message to Federer that he is no longer afraid to confront him. He should have at least made more of a match of it.

And yet, Soderling seemed to be intimidated by Federer, the pro-Federer New York crowd and the situation. Aside from his two title round appearances at Roland Garros, Soderling’s record at the Grand Slam events leaves a lot to be desired. He has yet to even reach a semifinal anywhere else at the majors. I thought when he played so well again this year at Paris in clipping both Federer and Tomas Berdych that Soderling might be ready to move to another level, to start contending strongly at all of the majors, to begin carrying himself like someone who believes he belongs among the elite. Soderling has not done that at the last two majors, despite his quarterfinal showings. He has not stepped up.

To be sure, the conditions worked against him last night. Federer is much more nimble and adaptable in the wind. Soderling could not serve with anything like his customary authority or accuracy, and he was hindered off the ground as well. But the fact remains that he played Federer at the U.S. Open in the quarters a year ago as well, and after losing the first two sets badly on another windy evening, he won the third set and had a set point before losing the fourth set.

Robin Soderling has made strides. He has earned his place among the top five in the world. He has achieved a prominence that has been earned through hard work, self sacrifice, and deep dedication to his craft. But I would like to see him demand more of himself. I hope he will learn to win not only when he is at the top of his game, but also at times when he is not playing all that well. Soderling can be proud of his progress, but he still has a tough path ahead if he wants to realize his full potential.

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