June 1, 2010

All Good Things...

A little over a year ago barely anyone knew who Robin Soderling was. But today we know him as the man who put an end to the two most impressive streaks in men's tennis.

We all remember what happened in 2009 when the Swede met four-time defending champion Rafael Nadal in the fourth round. The then twenty-two year old had won thirty-one consecutive matches at Roland Garros and was going into the Major with five titles already on the year. He was clearly the favorite to take home the trophy yet another time. But Soderling had different ideas and after three and a half hours, the world #25 had pulled off the upset of his career. And Rafa's record fell to a "dismal" 31-1.

This year Robin had his eyes focused on breaking a different run. The multi-record holding Roger Federer had made the semis or better at twenty-three consecutive Grand Slams. The last time he lost before the final four was in 2004 when Gustavo Kuerten took him out in the third round of the French. Though Federer had been less than spectacular in the weeks leading up to Paris, I don't think many people expected his streak to end quite yet. But again, the man who never lets anyone beat him eleven twelve thirteen times in a row had other ideas.

Roger began their quarterfinal match up playing like he always does, winning nearly ninety percent of his first serves and committing only three unforced errors. He took the first set in just about thirty minutes. Soderling answered back in the second, upping his own stats and taking chances to push Federer even. In the third Roger had set point, and he was impressive in getting to a smash his opponent fired off. He nearly pulled off an amazing passing shot, but Robin leaped in time to get the shot past the world #1 and ultimately hold his serve.

A sudden downpour halted play for about an hour and when the match resumed, Soderling quickly broke Federer and served out the set, taking the lead in the match for the first time and suddenly sparking talk that he was about to do the impossible. Another forty minutes of play and he'd finally done what so many had failed to do in the past -- Robin Soderling had sent Roger Federer home before the semifinals of a Grand Slam.

Robin's wins hold greater significance than breaking these two illustrious runs. His victory in 2009 set in motion the series of events that brought Federer back to the #1 ranking, and this year, if Rafa reclaims the trophy on Sunday, Soderling will have paved the way for him to regain the top spot. He's also set up a scenario in which he could face Nadal in the championship match -- with Tomas Berdych waiting in the wings, it certainly looks like he's the favorite to make the finals. For so long I'd been waiting for a Rafa/Roger rematch, but could you imagine the tension if Rafa had to play the only man to have beaten him in Paris for the title?

I'm not sure how I feel about seeing the greatest rivalry in tennis shift so drastically and so suddenly, but it certainly makes things interesting in this new decade. Whether Soderling is ready to win his first Major quite yet, I don't know -- he certainly looks to have the talent needed to claim that trophy.

After all, if you can beat both Rafa and Roger, don't you kind of deserve it?

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