The 2009 French Open men’s singles final offers a surprising matchup, but anyone who’s watched the first 14 days of the 15-day event at Roland Garros would find it hard ignore the notion that Robin Soderling should be the man standing in the way of Roger Federer‘s path to an added measure of tennis immortality.
Federer, who is intent on completing a career Grand Slam and tying Pete Sampras with 14 major titles on Sunday, might be a resourceful champion who has fought through six matches in Paris, but the best player over the past two weeks has been the 23rd-seeded Swede. In the fourth round of this tournament, Soderling did what Federer has never been able to do: Defeat Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros, in a best-of-five-set match. Hitting accurately and relentlessly throughout four cutthroat sets, Soderling stopped the four-championship, 31-match roll that Rafa had produced on the terre battue of France. Nadal’s singular dominance on red clay, and his status as the best claycourter this side of Bjorn Borg, made Soderling’s victory one of the seminal upsets in men’s tennis history. That Sunday shocker established Soderling as a threat in the men’s draw, but the Swede–who was congratulated by Borg after the upset win–had to show that he could back up one epic performance with even more excellence.
In the quarterfinals and semifinals at Roland Garros, Soderling showed that his triumph over Rafa was not a one-day dreamworld. Soderling mercilessly mashed Nikolay Davydenko–a top 10 mainstay–in the quarters, and then came from behind in the fifth set to deny Fernando Gonzalez in a high-level semifinal that experts regarded as a match superior to Federer’s semifinal win over Juan Martin del Potro. Soderling might carry a lowly No. 23 seed, which would have made the Swede an unseeded player in the years before professional tennis began seeding beyond the top 16 at Grand Slam events, but at this French Open, the 25-year-old is serving and hitting with the authority and consistency of a top 5 player. Soderling, who had never made the fourth round of ANY major championship before taking Paris by storm, wasn’t fazed by the magnitude of his semifinal showdown against a formidable foe in Gonzalez. In Sunday’s final, the cool customer–coached and trained superbly by 2000 Roland Garros runner-up and fellow Swede Magnus Norman–is not likely to shake in his boots.
And so, the matchup is here, and it’s a much closer one than casual sports fans might initially think. Sure, Federer is 9-0 in his career against Soderling, and sure, Federer is quite accustomed to the final day of a Grand Slam tournament, including at the French. The second-seeded Swiss will be playing in his fourth straight French Open final and his 15th slam final in the past 16 majors. That level of experience will mean something for Fed as he tries to claim his first Coupe de Mousquetaires; how much, though, is the real question at hand, because if Soderling plays the way he did in his upset of Nadal, the 13-time major champion will have a tough task in front of him.
The supremely delicious element of this climactic confrontation is that Federer–who lost to Nadal in the past four French Opens, with the past three losses coming in the final at Court Philippe Chatrier–will now be taking on the man who was good enough to beat Rafa on red dirt. It stands to reason that if Soderling’s best tennis, which was good enough to beat Nadal, is unleashed on Sunday against Federer, the Swiss will have to play his A-game just to survive. That A-game has made brief appearances in Paris–particularly in the third round of a win against Paul-Henri Mathieu–but it has not become a consistent part of Federer’s arsenal over the past 14 days. Federer has lost the first set in four of his first six matches in his journey through the bottom half of the men’s draw; if he loses the first set to Soderling, the pressure of the occasion–combined with the feeding of Soderling’s already-considerable confidence–could deny the world No. 2 a pair of No. 1-level accomplishments in the history of tennis.
The one thing that will truly play into Federer’s favor is the fact that in a French Open final, the Swiss maestro won’t have to endure the high-kicking lefty topspin provided by Nadal. Soderling–as tenacious and imposing as he is right now–will hit the kind of ball that Federer won’t mind responding to. Federer has had issues retrieving balls hit to his forehand corner in extended rallies, but the Swiss won’t have to worry about hitting a one-handed backhand at shoulder height on Sunday. That small but significant fact could help the No. 2 seed to get dialed in from the backcourt.
Another factor to watch for is the weather. Viewers of Saturday’s women’s singles final noticed that gray skies and damp conditions have come to Paris after a week and a half of sun-baked conditions that made the red clay play with the quickness of a medium-pace hardcourt. Soderling’s huge hitting is aided by fast conditions, so if continued rain slows the terre battue when match time arrives, Federer–whose wheelhouse is lower to the ground when compared to other players–will find even more favorable circumstances in his bid for a whole lot of history.
Robin Soderling is unlikely to concede much of anything. Roger Federer has some subtle but meaningful advantages from an X-and-O standpoint. There’s nothing left to do but play tennis. Federer has a tough match on his hands; any talk about epic achievements and record-setting accomplishments can wait until the Swiss has won match point. Given the way Soderling’s been smacking the ball in Paris, it will be a hard-enough achievement for Federer to even get to the one match point he’s been waiting his whole life to win.
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