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Steve Flink: Soderling Steps Up

11/15/2010 12:00:00 AM

by Steve Flink

You don’t make it to the finals of two French Opens in a row without a considerable amount of talent and a good deal of grit. You can’t establish yourself in the upper regions of your sport unless you are prepared to keep moving beyond yourself in pursuit of your chief objectives. You won’t succeed in the demanding world of professional tennis if you are not willing to work inordinately hard to expand your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. You do not become an outstanding competitor in this game we all love by resting on your laurels.

Sweden’s Robin Soderling knows as well as anyone else how unpredictable and daunting it can be to build a reputation and then live up to it. Soderling has enjoyed a productive and in many ways a stellar campaign in 2010, highlighting his season by upending Roger Federer in the quarterfinals of Roland Garros en route to another appearance in the final round of the world’s premier clay court event. Since that time, Soderling had been solid and professional, reaching the quarters at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, getting to the final in Bastad, recording consistently good results everywhere he went.

But Soderling had not won a tournament since he came through in Rotterdam back in February, and for a player of his stature that had to be disconcerting. Now, however, he has made amends, capturing the first Masters 1000 crown of his career, taking the BNP Paribas Masters indoors at Paris-Bercy. With that significant victory, he moved past Andy Murray to a career high at No. 4 in the world. Soderling will head into the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup in London with renewed self conviction and a growing belief in himself and his chances. On a very fast court indoors in Paris, Soderling had an excellent week, toppling Stanislas Wawrinka, ending a two match losing streak against Andy Roddick, saving three match points in a clutch semifinal victory over Michael Llodra, and then taking apart Gael Monfils 6-1, 7-6 (1) in the championship match. Holding back two Frenchman in a row at the end to win the biggest title of his life was no mean feat for the 6’4” Swede.

The outcome of the final was never in much doubt for a purposeful Soderling, who won 88% of his first serve points, 63% of his second serve points, and did not face a break point. He secured five games in a row from 1-1 in the opening set. Soderling served five aces in that opening set, releasing at least one ace in every service game. The Swede looked considerably fresher than the charismatic Frenchman, who had recorded the single biggest win of his career the day before when he saved five match points to defeat Federer. Soderling had also been pushed into a final set tie-break by Llodra, but the points in that semifinal contest were not nearly as punishing because the left-handed Llodra was serving-and-volleying relentlessly and chipping and charging every bit as persistently.

In any case, Monfils came alive in the second set of the final. He served six of his eight aces in that set, and conceded only eight points in six service games. Yet Soderling was not dismayed, and he was at his best when he served to stay in the match at 4-5 and at 5-6, losing only one point in those two games. All along, Soderling was magnificent from the backcourt, controlling one rally after another, catching Monfils off guard with excellent use of the backhand down the line, keeping the Frenchman at bay with his trademark inside-out forehand. In the second set tie-break, Monfils lost the first point on his serve with an unforced error off his two-hander, and never recovered. Soderling did not miss a first serve in the sequence, and he took four points in a row from 3-1 to close out the match.

Soderling overwhelmed a weary Monfils, and kept the crowd from being a factor, refusing to give his adversary any room for encouragement. What a contrast this was from his semifinal against Llodra, the 30-year-old lefty who was having one of the finest weeks in his career. Llodra has long been an outstanding doubles player, but his singles game has been marred by inconsistency and ground strokes that do not match the level of his attacking play. And yet, performing in front of his nation’s fans who were thrilled by his every move, delighted to be strutting his stuff on a fast court that suited his style to the hilt, inspired by a rare opportunity to do big things on his own, Llodra ousted No. 16 seed John Isner to set up a quarterfinal appointment with defending champion Novak Djokovic, the No. 2 seed.

Djokovic seemed poised to secure the first set of his showdown with Llodra, serving with a 6-4 lead in a tie-break.  Llodra answered the call with breathtaking clarity and uninhibited joy, sweeping four points in a row to steal the set. He went for an acutely angled backhand crosscourt winner, and pulled it off brilliantly. Then he produced an unstoppable serve-and-volley combination, followed by a service winner. From double set point down, Llodra was up set point. Djokovic missed his first serve but sent the second delivery reasonably deep down the middle. Llodra read it quickly, took his topspin backhand return remarkably early, and connected with a startling winning return into the Serbian’s vacant forehand corner. Llodra had the set, and he rolled on commandingly to a 7-6 (6), 6-2 victory. He then collected 11 of the last 13 games from 2-4 down against Nikolay Davydenko for another straight set win, and thus approached his penultimate round meeting with Soderling in a good frame of mind.

The first set of that contest was settled in a tie-break. Soderling had an opening for a forehand inside-out winner, but his shot bounded off the net cord and did not clear the net. Llodra did not lose a point in that tie-break.  Soderling was playing first rate tennis, yet Llodra had the crowd and the fast court on his side. But at 5-5, 40-30 in the second set, the Frenchman double faulted. Soderling pounced, nailing an inside-out backhand return winner off a weak second serve, then getting his first break of serve with a running forehand crosscourt winner set up by a well executed backhand return. Soderling held on to make it one set all, and seemed to be heading inexorably toward victory. Llodra double faulted at break point down in the opening game of the final set, and Soderling had the momentum he wanted.

Soderling built a 4-2 third set lead, and had a wavering Llodra down 0-30 in the seventh game. On that critical point, Llodra lunged for a forehand first volley, allowing Soderling time to line up his passing shot. The Swede drove it hard, but Llodra anticipated beautifully and angled away an elegant backhand drop volley winner. He rallied to 30-30, double faulted to make it 30-40, but saved the break point with a perfectly placed sliced serve down the T that Soderling could not handle. An ace and a backhand volley winner enabled Llodra to hold on for 3-4.

Soderling had a game point for 5-3 but Llodra wiped that away with a gorgeous forehand topspin lob winner. The Frenchman earned a break point, and rallied to 4-4 with a point that typified his play that afternoon. Llodra chipped-and-charged off the second serve, creating an opening for a forehand drop volley. Soderling scampered forward to hit a two-handed pass down the line, but Llodra read that shot quickly and punched a backhand volley winner past the Swede. They were back on serve. At 5-6, serving to stay in the match for the second time, Soderling demonstrated his sturdiness as a competitor. It was in that gripping game that he was on the brink of defeat, staving off the three match points. On the first, he approached the net confidently, and won the point with a daring backhand volley winner down the line behind Llodra.

The second match point was Llodra’s best chance. The Frenchman had the court wide open for a forehand down the line passing shot, but much to his chagrin, Llodra drove the ball into the net. He still earned a third match point chance, but Soderling came in behind a deep crosscourt forehand, and then put away a difficult high backhand volley crosscourt. Soderling held serve after nine deuces to reach a final set tie-break. He went out in front 5-2, but Llodra was not giving up. He surged back to 5-5, and then chip-charged off a second serve once more. Soderling managed to run around his backhand, and audaciously rolled a forehand inside-out passing shot for a winner. Llodra was serving at 5-6, and Soderling was up match point for the first time. Llodra saved it with another textbook winning volley for 6-6, but the Swede was unshakable. He unleashed a scorching backhand return to set up a forehand passing shot into the clear. At 7-6, on his second match point, a big first serve opened up the court for a forehand winner. Soderling had won 6-7 (0), 7-5, 7-6 (6).

Not only had Llodra lost a monumental opportunity to reach a singles final at a Masters 1000 event for the first time, but the audience in Paris was also surely distraught about the outcome of his contest with Soderling. But Monfils stepped out on court to meet Federer, and they proceeded to play the match of the tournament, and one of the most entertaining skirmishes of 2010. Federer had never been beaten in five previous showdowns with Monfils, including two meetings at the French Open in a 2008 semifinal and a quarterfinal the following year. But Monfils is not the same player nowadays. He still can be too much of a showman and not enough of a tennis player.

His shot selection remains suspect in the tight corners of important contests. He still could be a better match player. But Monfils is making substantial progress in many ways, as he demonstrated irreversibly across the week in Paris. He saved two match points against Fernando Verdasco in the round of 16, both with clutch serves down the T in the Ad Court that the Spaniard could not return. One was a first serve and the other a gutsy second serve, and Monfils carved out a 6-7 (4), 7-6 (2), 7-5 victory. In the quarters, Monfils upended No. 3 seed Andy Murray, and the timing of that confrontation could have been no better for the Frenchman. Murray had come off debilitating three set victories over David Nalbandian and Marin Cilic. Murray was plainly a beleaguered figure when he met Monfils, who was patient when he needed to be, aggressive at the right times, and composed throughout.

On the quick court, Murray seemed in a tactical quandary. He tried to rally with Monfils and search for vulnerabilities, but he found very little to expose. Monfils simply wasn’t missing much. He attempted to attack unexpectedly, to serve-and-volley selectively, to force the issue whenever possible. But nothing he tried at the outset was really working. Monfils took the first set comfortably. Murray was clearly out of sorts and agitated, devoid of his customary passion and mobility. He frequently went for down the line winners on the run off sides, bailing out of points rather than trusting his legs to get him where he needed to be.

Nonetheless, Murray willed his way into the match during the second set. He broke for 4-2 and saved two break points in the seventh game, both with crackling forehand winners set up by excellent serves. Murray broke again to take the set, held for 1-0 in the third, and his run of five consecutive games put him in an enviable position. It did not last. At 2-2 in that final set, he made it from 15-40 to deuce, only to net a backhand approach shot. When he pulled a forehand wide, Murray had fallen behind a break at 3-2. Monfils recovered his conviction. He rolled to 5-3, and then broke Murray again in the ninth game to wrap up a gratifying victory. Murray—fatigued and listless—was almost desperate at the end. On the first point at 3-5, he tried a serve-and-volley behind a second serve and the strategy totally backfired. At 30-40, down match point, Murray served-and-volleyed again, and did not get the stick he needed on his first volley. Monfils sent a backhand pass crosscourt into the clear, winning 6-2, 2-6, 6-3.

And so it was time for Federer and Monfils to do battle. In the opening game of the match, Federer was thrice down break point in a seven deuce game, but he managed to hold on. Thereafter, both men took full advantage of the speedy court, and neither faced a break point en route to a tie-break. Federer was conducting business as he had all week, giving nothing away on serve, letting his majestic forehand do the talking for him, calmly looking to assert his authority.  For his part, Monfils was determined and smart, staying with Federer thorough thick and thin in every absorbing rally, waiting for the right openings to crack his flattened out forehand for winners, playing high quality tennis.

In the opening set tie-break, Federer drew first blood. He went ahead 4-2. A picture-book inside-out forehand took Federer to 5-3, two points away from sealing the set. Federer tried to serve his way to a 6-3, triple set point lead, but Monfils found a way to get up to the net, and the Swiss missed a backhand pass. Monfils got back to 5-5, and then Federer seemed poised to make a forceful forehand approach. Instead, he unwisely tried a drop shot and sent it into the net. Monfils was up set point with Federer serving at 5-6, but Federer aced him down the T. Federer regained the lead at 7-6 with a forehand winner, but Monfils saved a set point for 7-7 with a service winner of his own down the T. Another strong first serve that elicited a forehand return error from Federer put Monfils at 8-7, with a second set point. Federer missed his first serve, and on the fifth stroke of the rally he overanxiously netted a forehand inside-in. Set to Monfils, 9-7 in the tie-break. That was a big blow to Federer.

The level of play remained high on both sides of the net all through the second set. Both men served stupendously and on they went to another tie-break, with Monfils hoping to close out the match. But the Frenchman served a double fault on the opening point of the tie-break. He got the mini-break back to cut the gap to 2-1, but Federer swept five points in a row. He had found his bearings at precisely the right time, imposing his will, drawing level at one set all. The boost he got from asserting himself carried over into the final set.

Federer promptly held at 15 for 1-0. With Monfils serving at 0-1, 30-40, Federer pieced together one of his most well orchestrated points of the match, a tapestry of strokes that had Monfils off balance and ill at ease throughout the rally. Federer seized control with a series of inside-out forehands, mixed in a few backhand slices, and then won the point with a backhand slice down the line that lured Monfils into a forehand error on the 21st stroke of the exchange. Federer had the first service break of the match for 2-0. He was on a roll, holding at love for 3-0, serving another love game to reach 4-1. At 4-2, 40-30, Federer appeared to have the match well in hand. But he drove an inside-out forehand long to allow Monfils back to the safety of deuce.

Monfils now took matters into his own hands, walloping a mammoth flat forehand inside out for a clean winner. At break point, Monfils sensibly made Federer play, sending his return of serve down the middle. Federer pulled a forehand wide. Monfils had become the first player in the tournament to break Federer. Monfils held on for 4-4 with an ace for 40-15 followed by a two-handed backhand winner down the line. But, serving at 5-6, trying to reach a final set tie-break, Monfils stumbled. He double faulted for 0-15, and then Federer hit a forehand net cord return winner for 0-30. Monfils was constantly under duress on the next point, but he won an 18 stroke rally when Federer netted a forehand down the line. Federer did not fret, opening up the court for a forehand crosscourt winner to make it 15-40, double match point.

Federer went after Monfils at full force, ripping a forehand inside-in. Monfils was on the run but he hit an effective low forehand down the line. His shot was hit hard but not deep. Federer moved in for the kill, but netted an inside-out forehand. The court was open but the shot was arduous. On the second match point, Monfils attacked and punched a backhand volley crosscourt. Federer was rushed into a backhand passing shot error down the line. Good fortune came Federer’s way once more. A backhand net cord return fell over for another winner, giving the world No. 2 a third match point. Monfils saved that one with a bold second serve kicker that Federer chipped into the net off the backhand. Federer soon garnered a fourth match point, but missed a topspin backhand return off a second serve. On all four match points, Federer had been presented with second serves from Monfils, but he had been unable to take advantage.
A running forehand pass down the line gave Federer a fifth match point, but this time Monfils got his first serve in, and soon made his way up to the net, going crosscourt with an overhead. Federer got it back, but Monfils directed a forehand down the line as he went forward again, and this time Federer lobbed over the baseline. The next rally was a beauty, but it ended on the 18th stroke when Federer punched a backhand crosscourt volley wide. Monfils was finally at game point, and it only took one swing of the racket for him to win it. He released an ace down the T for 6-6. Federer opened the tie-break with an ace, but Monfils took three points in a row. Federer made an inside-out forehand unforced mistake to make it 3-1 for Monfils. The Frenchman got to 4-2 with a magnificent forehand winner up the line off a backhand slice from Federer, but then missed a forehand crosscourt wide going for another winner.

The suspense was not over. Federer was serving at 3-4. He advertised his discomfort on this critical point after some fine defense from Monfils. Federer drove a forehand well out of court to make it 5-3 for Monfils. Federer took the next point, but now Monfils was serving at 5-4. Federer badly miss-hit a forehand long. It was 6-4 for Monfils, double match point for the Frenchman. He did not hesitate, connecting perfectly with a first serve down the T. Federer barely got a racket on it. Monfils had achieved his first win ever over Federer, winning gallantly 7-6 (5), 6-7 (1), 7-6 (4).

Remarkably, this was the fourth time in 2010 that Federer had lost a match after having match points. He had three match points against Marcos Baghdatis but lost to the Cypriot at Indian Wells. He had one match point against Tomas Berdych before bowing in Miami. And he had two match points against Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of the U.S. Open, only to lose that encounter. Moreover, his loss to Monfils halted some of the momentum he had established in recent weeks. After losing to Murray in the Shanghai final in October, he had won Stockholm and Basel, and came to Paris in search of a third consecutive tournament victory.

It was not that Federer played badly in Paris; in fact, he played well all week. He is probably the slight favorite going into London for the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. But that tournament will be hard fought and suspenseful. Rafael Nadal—who missed Paris with a shoulder injury—has made it clear he wants to make amends for not winning a match a year ago in that event. Despite having locked up the No. 1 world ranking for the year after securing three majors, Nadal will be highly charged and looking forward to the challenge of succeeding indoors, where he has always struggled. Djokovic is fully capable of winning the title he garnered in 2008. Murray would love to win the event for the first time, and has the goods to do it.
One other man must be watched carefully. He hails from Sweden. He is peaking at just the right time. He made it to the semifinals a year ago, losing a hard fought battle with Juan Martin Del Potro. Revitalized after his impressive triumph in Paris, Robin Soderling will surely make his presence known in London.

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