It took just 28 minutes on Wednesday night to learn one of the best rivalries in men’s tennis today isn’t much of a rivalry at all.
That’s how long Robin Soderling was able to keep his finger in the dam against Roger Federer in the last of the men’s quarterfinals on a wind-swept night at Ashe Stadium.
After Soderling held serve in the opening game, he pushed Federer to 30-40 and a first break point opportunity. On the next point, Federer appeared to push a forehand beyond the baseline, giving Soderling the tantalizingly early break and a major confidence boost. Until, of course, a challenge showed the ball was just millimeters in.
Unlucky, yes, but it only started there. Soderling had earned no less than five break point chances before Federer earned his first at 4-4 in the first. Like so much of Soderling’s misfortune, it started innocuously enough: with a netted backhand at 30-15. A beat later, Soderling found himself at 30-40, trading deep, flat groundstrokes from behind the baseline. And that’s when Federer, in an act of deception bordering on treachery, gently delivered a drop shot that hung in the night, caught a gust of wind and just died mid-flight — dropping like a rock and landing right as Soderling arrived.
Five times Soderling had knocked with no answer, five chances to put Federer on the back foot and nothing to show for it. And Federer needed four less to confirm what he already knew: that Soderling, while a formidable talent with a booming serve and driving forehand, was there to be taken. Twenty-eight minutes into Wednesday’s match, Soderling was broken in more ways than one.
From there … well, you know the rest.
“He’s always in the right place,” Soderling said afterward. “The margin is small. There’s a couple points here or there.”
Federer and Soderling have now played 14 matches, with the Swiss winning 13 times. Normally, such a lopsided head-to-head record is hardly indicative of a competitive rivalry, but a few things must be noted. First, Federer and Soderling have played five times in the past seven majors, only once before the Round of 16. Second, while Federer won the first 12 meetings, Soderling had won their most recent match before Wednesday: a quarterfinal victory at the French Open that snapped Federer’s record of 23 consecutive major semifinal appearances. Third, the majority of those losses (nine of them) came before Soderling’s famous victory over Rafael Nadal at the 2009 French, which is the reference point by which the Swede’s two careers are defined. And fourth, the memory of the quarterfinal Federer and Soderling played here just last year was still fresh. Federer won that one 6-0, 6-3, 6-7(6), 7-6(6), but only after Soderling rallied valiantly from a two-set hole, decisively wrested the momentum and came [ital]thisclose[/ital] to pushing it to a fifth.
In short, Soderling is one of the few players who have beaten Federer and Nadal in the Grand Slam pressure-cooker, so many fancied his chances entering Wednesday’s match. And for 28 minutes, the outcome [ital]was[/ital] in doubt.
By the end, however, Federer’s artistry and efficiency were on full display, his versatility spelled out with picturesque passing shots, overhand volleys and the occasional net rush. On the other side, Soderling’s inability to execute at key moments of the match — the netted overhand smash at 40-0 in the second set that leads to a break, for one — was certainly his downfall Wednesday and possibly what keeps him from joining the uppermost tier of players on tour. He went nearly two full sets before hitting an ace. And the inability to consistently put first serves in — no doubt exacerbated by the heavy winds on Ashe — sealed his fate.