Robin Soderling

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Roland Garros Day 8: Links Roundup with Williams, Robredo, Nadal, Errani and more

Viktor Troicki and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga switch sides during their fourth round match.

Roland Garros Roundup takes you through the Slam’s hot stories of the day, both on and off the court.

Shot of the Day: No. 6 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga defeats Viktor Troicki in the most routine match on the men’s side, 6-3, 6-3, 6-3. The Frenchman next takes on Roger Federer who escaped a five-set battle against another Frenchman, Gilles Simon.

Roger Federer avoids monumental upset: After falling behind two sets to one to Frenchman Gilles Simon, Roger Federer’s 2013 French Open campaign and his quarterfinal streak at majors (35) were in imminent jeopardy of being shot down. After breaking for 4-2 in the fourth set, Federer was able to pick up the momentum Simon had seized in the second and third sets to ultimately win in five sets. Federer reveled in his victory following the match as EuroSport.com reports.

Juniors take the court: The burgeoning stars of the future began their quest for a Roland Garros crown Sunday as the French Open Junior Championships kicked off. If you’re looking for more info on the junior competition, Collette Lewis of Zoo Tennis has you covered with a preview of the Boys and Girls singles draw.

Svetlana Kuznetsova triumphs Angelique Kerber: In case you missed the 11am match, fourth round match between Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova and German Angelique Keber, Peter Bodo of Tennis.com wrote an extremely detailed account of Kuznetsova’s three set victory. Kuznetsova’s reward for defeating Kerber is a date with Serena Williams in the quarterfinals. Bodo advises Kuznetsova to “return to Hogwarts and see what else Dumbledore can cook up before that meeting takes place” after earlier commenting that Kuznetsova’s outfit was “an outfit designed by Albus Dumbledore” as it was “dark blue with a pattern suggesting clouds in the moonlight lacking only a wand as an accessory.”

Serena Williams talks on court emotions: In her post-match press conference, Serena Williams talked about the emotions she exhibited in her straight sets victory over Italian Roberta Vinci. Williams was asked, among other things, about her displays of anger in the early stages of the second set. One member of the media went as far as to say that Serena “looked like she was frustrated and was going to cry.” Serena appeared to be thrown off by the question and responded saying, “I’m fine, I’m totally fine, I’m really intense, I don’t remember that.”

Robin Soderling discusses absence: Having been absent for almost two years after being inflicted with the Epstein-Barr virus which leads into mononucleosis, Robin Soderling is still attempting to stage a comeback as LZ Granderson of ESPN reports. Soderling told ESPN, “There’s not much the doctors can do and I’ve been to quite a few of them. They all tell me that my body has to work through it, to do what I can. Now, if I train too much it takes me two days to recover.” Interestingly and surprisingly enough, Soderling told Granderson that he was “more satisfied with the win against Roger [at the 2010 French Open]” than he was with his victory over Rafael Nadal at the 2009 French Open.

Video analysis becoming critical tool: Christopher Clarey of the New York Times describes how video analysis is becoming an increasingly important tool in tennis using Gilles Simon as a case study.

“Tennis has long been slow to embrace the game-film culture pervasive in other professional sports. But that is changing.”

“Simon will have multiple weapons at his disposal against Federer including his speed, backhand, and ability to absorb pace. He will also have, if he so chooses, the benefit of extensive video analysis of Federer’s tactical patterns and tendencies.”

Tommy Robredo Rallies: For the third consecutive match, Spaniard Tommy Robredo erased a two sets to love deficit to win in five sets, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since 1927. Greg Garber of ESPN calls Robredo “one of tennis’ most tenacious survivors.” Following the match, Robredo was overcome with emotion stating, “And today, again, my emotions were so strong they were overpowering.  There was a lot of tension before the match, and then at the end of the match I wanted to find a way out from my emotions.”

Rafael Nadal acknowledges early round struggles: Rafael Nadal’s form in this year’s French Open has certainly been of lower quality than in years past. The Spaniard has acknowledged this fact in anticipation of his fourth round match with Kei Nishikori of Japan.

“I have to play better. If I want to have any chance, I really need to play better. But it is always the same story. When you without playing your best, you have the chances to play better. If you don’t fight when you have tough or negative days, then you don’t have all the chances for the future.”

Sara Errani overcomes injury, Carla Suarez Navarro: After battling through what she called “a stabbing pain under her ribs” that prevented her from breathing at 5-5 in the first set, Sara Errani rallied from a set down to beat Carla Suarez Navarro of Spain in three sets. Errani was extremely satisfied with the outcome and commended Suarez Navarro stating, “For me to be in quarterfinals is unbelievable. She’s an amazing player and it’s always tough to play against her. I’m very happy to have won.”

The Forever Men

Seppi Belgrade 2012 -7-crop

Last Sunday afternoon, Milos Raonic became the first man to win three consecutive titles at the SAP Open, at precisely the same moment he became the last man to win one at all. This edition of the San Jose was the last, bringing the rich history of professional tennis in northern California to a close. Raonic will therefore reign as defending champion approximately forever.

It can be a tricky matter to define precisely when a tournament actually expires, or even if it has. There are technical points to be made about licences and ownership, such that it is theoretically possible for an event to survive across endless variations of geography, surface and draw. Has Los Angeles really gone, or has it just moved to Bogota, simultaneously shifting continent and soaring into low orbit? What about the Memphis 500 event, which will relocate to Rio? What, if anything, about that tournament will truly endure?

Such discussions are apt to grow philosophical, as we’re compelled to wonder at the ineradicable essence of a tennis tournament, such that it can retain its identity when everything important about it has ostensibly changed. Apparently these things have ineffable souls, or at least durable traditions that might be strung out indefinitely.

On the other hand, aficionados of professional tennis in southern California are in no doubt that the LA tournament has ascended, not to Columbia, but to that great tennis boneyard in the sky. They might well be insulted if the next champion in Bogota was appended to the long and illustrious list of past LA champions, which includes Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe. The fans often know when a tournament has really perished, just as they know when it is being artificially sustained on life support.

Indeed, reading down the past champion’s lists for many of these cancelled events is bittersweet, evoking sepia-tinted glories, now fading irrecoverably with the tournament’s passing. While some were new ventures that evidently didn’t pan out, many more were decades old, and the winner’s list tells a salutary tale of prestige giving way, gradually or suddenly, to irrelevance. You can understand what is lost, even as you can see why it had to go.

Sometimes what is lost is an invaluable start. It is fascinating to note that each of the Big Four won his first title at a tournament that has since been cancelled: Roger Federer (Milan 2001), Rafael Nadal (Sopot 2004), Novak Djokovic (Amersfoort 2006), and Andy Murray (San Jose 2006).*

In any case, today I’m going to look at those men currently active on the ATP tour who won the ultimate edition of a tournament, whose names will remain the last one on the trophy. I won’t pretend that great insight will be thereby gleaned – perhaps a pattern will emerge – but sometimes it is enough merely to catalogue such things as they pass. There is a sense in which such compilations are subjective; I think I could mount a good argument why the tournament in Sao Paulo is the basically same one that was in Costa do Sauipe, while disputing the idea that Brisbane is a continuation of Adelaide, but I understand that others may not feel the same way. (I do encourage anyone who spots glaring factual inaccuracies to let me know.)

Milos Raonic (San Jose 2013)

The Canadian is only man on this list who goes out as back-to-back-to-back champion. He has won three San Jose titles in a row without dropping a set, in the process breaking records and Fernando Verdasco’s mind. It’s interesting to think how different it might have been had Gael Monfils contested their semifinal in 2011. He didn’t, Raonic gained free passage to the final, and the rest is history, in every sense. It’s even more interesting to think what the tournament’s disappearance will mean for Raonic from here. San Jose accounts for 75% of his career titles.

Sam Querrey (Los Angeles 2012 and Las Vegas 2008)

Querrey is one of two men who merit inclusion on this list twice. He is the forever champion in Los Angeles, which he won a total of three times. Indeed, one report archly implied that his dominance was part of the reason the event was consigned to oblivion (or Columbia). He was also the last man to win the ill-fated Las Vegas event, which is where the Scottsdale tourney went to undergo palliative care.

Andreas Seppi (Belgrade 2012)

When the old Dutch Open was sold to the Djokovic family, they probably dreamed it would last longer in their home city than five years. Alas, the event more or less lived and died according to the presence of the family’s most famed member, which is a parlous situation for any tournament. Nonetheless, Seppi was a worthy final winner.

Kevin Anderson (Johannesburg 2011)

At the time, I joked that Joburg’s days were numbered when Feliciano Lopez was marketed as the star attraction in 2011. Initially things seemed okay, with players such as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and David Ferrer lured to South Africa, presumably with their consent. But geography and scheduling proved a fatal cocktail. Staged the week after the Australian Open, at the far end of the earth, it just couldn’t work. It was, nonetheless, Anderson’s first title. It also boasted a truly ludicrous trophy, as so many do.

Nikolay Davydenko (Pörtschach 2008 and Warsaw 2008)

Davydenko is the other twice-tainted forever man. He remains the eternal champion in both Pörtschach and in Warsaw (which were to St Poeten and Sopot what Las Vegas was to Scottsdale: a nice spot for the tournament to sit with a rug over its knees as it quickly slid into its eternal goodnight). Both of these events were staged for the last time in 2008, which was something of a watershed year as far as these matters go. If the prevailing trend is for the United States to shed tournaments, five years ago Europe was suffering a similar affliction. It is curious that almost alone among this list, Davydenko is rare for being a player who was at the top of the game when he won these tournaments (ranked world No.4), although this says more about how modest his profile was even in his hey-day.

Ivo Karlovic (Nottingham 2008)

In 1998, the towering Croat became the two-time defending champion in Nottingham, which used to be the Wimbledon warm-up that almost no one played. On this surface, facing a weak field with his serve, Karlovic had no trouble making hay from the emerald sward. Nottingham was replaced (but not relocated) on the calendar by Eastbourne, which became a dual-gender event. The current Nottingham Challenger is a totally new tournament.

Michael Llodra (Adelaide 2008)

The French net-rusher was the last man ever to win the ATP event in Adelaide, also in 2008. The technical argument is that this tournament was moved to Brisbane, and combined with the existing WTA event. Technically this may be true, but really the Brisbane International is nothing like the old warhorse at Memorial Drive, where Lleyton Hewitt famously won his first career title as a 16 year old.

Richard Gasquet (Mumbai 2007)

The tournament that finally found peace in Mumbai had led a troubled journey through what some Australians quaintly persist in calling the Far East, beginning in Shanghai, moving briefly to Ho Chi Minh City, and finally gasping its last in Mumbai. After Gasquet won the final instalment, it was supposed to move to Bangalore, but security concerns cancelled the event the following year, and after that everyone seemed to lose interest. It was replaced by Kuala Lumpur, meaning that India, the second largest country in the Asia, lacks a tournament within the now-unified Asian Swing.

Filippo Volandri (Palermo 2006)

I confess I don’t know too much about this one, although I’d suggest that the days were numbered on any tournament whose final featured Volandri three years in a row.

Robin Soderling (Milan 2005)

The Milan Indoors was one of those tournaments with a tremendous history and a champion’s list that scans like a who’s who of the Open Era (McEnroe and Becker won four times each. Lendl, Borg, Edberg, and Vilas also hoisted the trophy). Roger Federer won his first title here in 2001. Nonetheless, the entry list had thinned calamitously by the time Soderling won in 2005, years before the Swede found his place in the loftier echelons of the sport. At the time he was just another in a lengthening line of journeyman champions, a line that leads smaller regional tournaments inevitably to the scrapheap.

*Amersfoort later moved to Belgrade, which has also been cancelled.

Players Limp into the New Season

Venus Williams announces she will not compete in Melbourne.

It shouldn’t really be a surprise. There were plenty of players injured by the end of last season, and the off season isn’t exactly long enough to heal just any injury. Yet somehow, I still expected everyone to turn up all bright and shiny and new at the Australian Open. It seems that just isn’t the case. As of January 9th, just one week before the first main draw matches will start in Melbourne, at least eight men have withdrawn from the Australian Open and at least five of the women. This does not include players who were forced to withdraw from matches this week, but have not yet decided against playing in Melbourne.

The withdrawals have been trickling in for months and the maladies range from possible career enders to minor injuries that should heal up in a couple of weeks. Notable absences include Alisa Kleybanova, who is still battling Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Dinara Safin, whose chronic back problems have prevented her from playing since May, Robin Soderling, who’s having an awful bout with mononucleosis that has kept him out of competition since Wimbledon, Tommy Robredo, who has only played a couple of matches since March, Venus Williams, who revealed she has Sjogren’s Syndrome last year, and several others.

Even more concerning than the growing list of withdrawals from the tournament, is the almost equally long list of players who have injured themselves in the past week, yet still plan to compete. The almost inhuman Roger Federer tops the list of surprise injuries. He was forced to pull out before his semifinal in Doha last week due to a back injury. Federer has participated in forty eight consecutive Grand Slams, so I expect we’ll be seeing him come Monday. However, the real question is will we be seeing him come week two? Serena Williams, the 2010 champion, and Kim Clijsters, the 2011 champion, were both forced out of warm up tournaments with a sprained ankle and hip injury, respectively. Under normal circumstances, both women would be tournament favorites, but as it stands, the WTA field is wide open, which is a fairly common occurrence these days.

Sabine Lisicki, a 2011 Wimbledon semifinalist, doesn’t seem to have much luck when it comes to injuries. She was forced to retire from her match in Sydney with an abdominal strain, which seems like her thousandth injury on tour. Julia Goerges and Flavia Pennetta didn’t fare much better in Sydney. Julia came down with a viral illness and Flavia had to pull out of the tournament completely after retiring from her final match in Auckland.

Denis Istomin was a real winner in Brisbane when, after his first round opponent, Florian Mayer, was forced to retire, he received a walkover from the ailing Tommy Haas. Chennai appeared to be the most injury free tournament last week, with just one walkover to speak of.

If you can remember all the way back to September, we were all discussing the record number of withdrawals and retirements from the US Open. It seemed like each day more players would drop. The Australian Open is well known for its tough weather conditions, so add in the heat and exhaustion to the existing injuries. Will anyone make it to the end of Week 2?

What’s at Stake? The Australian Open Edition

Rafael Nadal Australian Open 2011

After what seemed like an eternity of an off season (oh wait, that was only three weeks?), the Australian summer swing is finally upon us and that means players have to start thinking about defending all those points from last year. Conversely, players who started 2011 with a bust have the chance to skyrocket up the rankings ladder. The biggest chance to score some points will come at the Australian Open in two weeks. Let’s take a look at which players have the most to gain and which players have the most to lose.

The Upside: Players with Room to Improve

Rafael Nadal – For most players, a Grand Slam quarterfinal is a great result. For Rafa, it’s a serious off day. Australia 2011 was the last Slam where Rafa failed to make it to the final. An injured Nadal lost in the quarterfinals to compatriot David Ferrer, which means that Australia 2012 is Nadal’s best chance to add the most points at a Slam in 2012. While there are plenty of rumors regarding a sore shoulder and a change in racket head weight, I think Nadal will show up in Australia ready to play. Australia hasn’t always been Rafa’s best Slam, but I would be surprised if he loses before the semifinals.

Jo Wilfried Tsonga – By the end of 2011, Tsonga had tied his career high ranking, and at number 6, it will be tough to climb much higher. However, Tsonga’s best performance at a Grand Slam was when he made the finals in Australia, so if ever there was a time to make a splash, it would be now. Tsonga had some great wins last year, over the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Juan Martin del Potro. Riding that kind of confidence, Jo may be able to pull off a big upset in Melbourne, assuming he can keep his head. Although, that’s a big assumption.

Mardy Fish – Mardy Fish had a career season in 2011 and it’s tough to imagine the 30 year old doing much better this year. The majority of Fish’s points to defend are in the second half of the season, which means that the best way to hedge his position or even jump up a spot or two in the rankings is to go deep at the Australian Open. Last year, Fish lost in the second round, which leaves heaps of room for improvement this year. Mardy will have the added bonus of being a Top 8 seed, which theoretically gives him a better draw.

Juan Martin del Potro – Juan Martin del Potro ended the 2010 season ranked 257 in the world. He is currently ranked 11. That’s quite a jump. There’s not quite as much room to improve this year, but it’s nearly inevitable that Delpo will crack the Top 10 after the Australian Open, if not before. Last year, Juan Martin fell to Marcos Baghdatis in the second round. Juan Martin played some amazing tennis last season and I expect to see great things from him in the coming year. I would not be surprised to see Delpo in the Top 5 by the end of 2012.

The Downside: Players Due for a Fall

Novak Djokovic – Could Novak Djokovic possibly match the year he had last year? No. Novak Djokovic tore through the draw in Melbourne last year, and then proceeded to win pretty much everything until the US Open. He was undefeated until the French Open, where he lost in the semifinals to Roger Federer. Djokovic has won the Australian Open twice, and he’s definitely a favorite going in to 2012. However, considering his success last year, there’s really nowhere to go but down.

David Ferrer – The diminutive Spaniard managed a big upset, taking out Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals of the 2011 Australian Open. At number 5 in the world, it’s very unlikely that Ferrer will be able to crack into the Top 4, considering their dominance. Again, that means little room for improvement, and lots of room for fallout.

Robin Soderling – Unfortunately, Soderling has been plagued by injury for most of 2011 and it seems like these woes will be continuing in 2012. He is planning to skip out on the Australian Open, where he would have been defending fourth round points. He will also be losing out on championship points from Brisbane and if he’s not fit by February, his points from Rotterdam and Marseille will disappear as well.

Twelve Storylines to Watch Out for in 2012

Will 2012 be an even more successful year for Donald Young?

Tennis at the London Olympics

The London Olympics Games adds another dynamic to the 2012 tennis calendar. Coming just three weeks after Wimbledon, players will have to adjust their already busy schedules for a shot at Olympic gold. Although the Games do not hold as much gravitas as the four Grand Slams, the London Olympics should attract a lot of interest due to its familiar location at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, host of the Wimbledon Championships.

The defending Olympic champions are Rafael Nadal and Elena Dementieva, both of whom won the singles competition at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It should be interesting to see if Roger Federer can add Olympic gold in Men’s singles to his collection or if Andy Murray can win it for the home team.

Can Novak Djokovic repeat his 2011 magic?

Novak Djokovic had one of the most memorable tennis seasons ever in 2011. The test now becomes whether the world No. 1 can sustain his dominance in 2012. At only 24-years-old, the Serbian is in prime position to add to his four Grand Slam titles. Even with nagging injuries and a target on his back, Djokovic looks to be the man to beat as the new season unfolds.

Will Caroline Wozniacki win her first major title?

The Slam-less world No. 1 may not have an aggressive game, but she continues to perform consistently well on tour (as evident by her second consecutive year-end No. 1 ranking.) Can she finally break through in 2012 and win her maiden Grand Slam? With a new coach, Spaniard Ricardo Sanchez, in hand – Wozniacki has the chance to finally put this question to rest with a Grand Slam victory and prove to critics that she is worthy of her ranking.

What’s next for Donald Young?

One of the more surprising stories of 2011 was the emergence of Donald Young. Long touted as the future of American tennis, Young turned pro in 2004 at only 15-years-old after an extremely successful junior career. Young spent the following years toiling in the Challenger Tour and losing to players below his ranking. But 2011 was a turnaround year for the 22-year-old.

Young upset then world No. 5 Andy Murray at Indian Wells, which was followed by his first ATP semifinals appearance at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic. He brought his exciting game to the U.S. Open and fought his way to the fourth round, reinvigorating fans that have yearned to see him succeed. Young also reached an ATP final in Bangkok, losing to Andy Murray. At world No. 39, Young’s confidence is at an all time-high and a successful 2012 will go a long way in proving that he is ready to be player that everyone expected him to be.

The return of Sam Querrey and Robin Soderling

The 2011 season was a frustrating one for both Sam Querrey and Robin Soderling. Because of an elbow injury that required surgery, Querrey was forced to miss most the season, including Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. The towering American began the year at a career high world No. 17 and has the talent to contend at Grand Slams. Querrey was able to play in a couple Challenger tournaments towards the end of year and now sits at world No. 93.

Two-time French Open finalist Soderling suffered a wrist injury and was diagnosed with mononucleosis that forced him to withdraw from the U.S. Open and will keep him out of the 2012 Australian Open. Previously ranked as high as world No. 4, the hard-hitting Swede is currently ranked No. 13 in the world.

Like Juan Martin del Potro this year, the return of these two talents will be much welcomed in 2012.

Is Petra Kvitova the real deal?

With the current parity in women’s tennis, there is an absence of a dominant player that can contend in every Grand Slam. There were four different winners in the 2011, with three earning their maiden major title. The 21-year-old Kvitova has the game to cement herself as a favorite going into tournaments and finished the season strong, with a win at the WTA Tour Championships and Fed Cup victory. It remains to be seen, but 2012 can be a statement year for the world No. 2.

Which maiden Grand Slam winner will back it up in 2012?

Speaking of first-time Grand Slam winners, Li Na, Petra Kvitova and Sam Stosur will all have a chance to defend their 2011 victories on the big stage. Li, Asia’s first Grand Slam singles winner, struggled after her win at Roland Garros, losing in the second round at Wimbledon and exiting in the first at the U.S. Open. The streaky Stosur finished the year in style with a convincing win over Serena Williams on Arthur Ashe stadium and will be an early favorite going into her home Grand Slam at the Australian Open, which begins January 16.

Can the young Americans make a push in the rankings and Grand Slams?

At the 2011 U.S. Open, young Americans made headlines for scoring upsets, which provided a glimpse of American’s tennis future. Players such as Christina McHale, Sloane Stephens, Irina Falconi, Madison Keys, Ryan Harrison, Donald Young and Jack Sock all rose rapidly in the rankings in 2011 and could be a factor in tournaments next season, including the Grand Slams.

Will there be a No. 17 for Roger Federer?

The 2011 season marked the first time since 2002 that 16-time Grand Slam winner Roger Federer did not win a major title. But with at least a quarterfinals appearance in each Grand Slam this year, the 30-year-old Swiss proved he has much left in his tank. Federer ended Djokovic’s undefeated streak of 43-consecutive wins at the French Open semifinal and was “a shot” away from reaching the U.S. Open finals. He should not be counted out for any of the Grand Slams in 2012.

The return (and retirement?) of Kim Clijsters

Kim Clijster’s 2011 campaign was cut short due to an abdominal injury, but she appears healthy and ready to make a push in 2012. At 28-years-old, Clijsters is one of the veterans on the WTA Tour and had said earlier in the year that the 2012 Olympics may be her last “big event.” Her return instantly makes her an early favorite at the Australian Open and the will she/won’t she retirement talk will certainly be a topic throughout the year.

The young guns

In addition to young Americans ready to make a run, several fresh faces on the ATP Tour made a name for themselves in 2011. Ukrainian Alexandr Dolgopolov made an early statement by reaching this year’s Australian Open quarterfinals, knocking out Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Robin Soderling along the way. With his unorthodox style and go-for-broke shots, the 23-year-old Dolgopolov has plenty of upside.

Canada’s Milos Raonic brought his country’s tennis hopes back into conversation with booming serves that reached 150 miles per hour. In 2011, the 21-year-old Raonic won his first career ATP title at the SAP Open and reached the finals at Memphis. Currently ranked No. 31 and recovered from hip surgery, Raonic is eager to continue his ascent in 2012.

As a qualifier, Bernard Tomic stormed all the way into the Wimbledon quarterfinals where he lost in four-sets to eventual champion Novak Djokovic. The 19-year-old has a powerful game and could be a real threat at the Grand Slams next season.

The health of Venus Williams

At 31-years-old and suffering from various ailments, Venus Williams appears to be in the tail end of her illustrious career. Williams suffered another set back when she was diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes fatigue and joint pain, during the U.S. Open. She was scheduled to play in Auckland next week in preparation from the Australian Open but withdrew to continue her recovery. There will be a lot of focus on her status as the season approaches and the game will be missing one of its biggest stars until she returns.

Tennis Grandstand writer Lindsay Gibbs contributed to this list. All photos were taken at the 2011 U.S. Open by managing editor Romana Cvitkovic.

 

We Miss You Robin Soderling

Robin Soderling of Sweden celebrates defeating Lleyton Hewitt of Australia at the Wimbledon tennis championships in London

Robin Soderling used to be one of the most misunderstood players on the the ATP World Tour.  Nowadays, however, he’s just one of the most missed.

Earlier this week Soderling, who has been off of the tour since July fighting mononucleosis, withdrew from the Australian Open.  He tweeted that he was hoping to be able to return to the tour in February.  It was heartbreaking news for myself and the rest of the tennis community.  Though we haven’t always fully embraced and appreciated the shy but unyielding Swede, the thought of a Soderling-less January just seems completely wrong. Something’s missing, and it hurts.

How did we get here? Did absence make our hearts grow fonder?  Did we not know what we had until it was gone? Are we just feeling sympathy for an ailing athlete, or is this group heartache a symptom of something else? Is it possible that, without even realizing it, we all fell a bit in love with Robin Bo Carl Soderling?

 

The Early Years

What did we know about Robin Soderling the morning of May 31, 2009?  Dedicated tennis fans knew him primarily as an indoor-tennis-specialist, a rare breed of player who’s only significant results came when the stadium was closed off from the outside world.  He had been in nine finals and won three titles, all indoors on either hard-court or carpet. Unfortunately outside where the rest of the tennis players lived he was seen as an underachiever, another in the endless parade of players who seem destined to never live up to their potential.

He also had a reputation as a, well, to put it nicely- a brat.  In a 2007 Wimbledon five-set match against Rafael Nadal he made waves by mocking the French Open Champion and playing mind games (seen in the video below).  This ruffled the Spaniard so much that in his post-match interview Nadal made some uncharacteristically harsh comments about his opponent, calling Soderling “strange”, and saying that he had a hard time finding anyone in the locker room with nice things to say about him.  Those comments would follow him around for years to come.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vUuVU03lY1c

 

The Breakthrough

I’m not sure that “breakthrough” is a strong enough word for Soderling’s 6–2, 6–7(2), 6–4, 7–6(2) defeat over Rafael Nadal on May 31, 2009 in the fourth round of the French Open.  In fact, I’m quite certain it’s not .  That match is the tennis world’s “Where were you when…” moment.  I’ll never forget the surreal, uncomfortable, queasy feeling I had sitting on my couch that morning watching the upset unfold.  Some things in life were certain- death, taxes, and Rafael Nadal winning the French Open.  Robin Soderling and his monster forehand knocked the entire tennis world off it’s axis that day.  It was as exhilarating as it was terrifying.

As we all tried to gather our breath and find our footing again in this strange new world, Soderling steamrolled through Nikolay Davydenko in the quarterfinals and survived an epic five-setter against Fernando Gonzales in the semifinals to make it all the way to the French Open final.  The man who had never been past the Third Round of a Major and who had never made a Final outdoors on any surface was now facing Roger Federer in the French Open Finals.

Though Soderling lost rather meekly to Federer that day, he shocked the tennis world again during the trophy presentation.  His speech was one of the most memorable runner-up speeches ever- sincere, funny, and incredibly endearing.  He “yoked” his way into our hearts that afternoon, and showed that his personality was just as complex and surprising as his game had become.  (His speech starts at 7:20 in the clip, everything before that is crying Federer.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Iob14Vp-_8

 

The Aftermath

So many players are defined by their breakthroughs that the word has become rather transparent.  Not Robin Soderling.  After the 2009 French Open he was not intimidated by his new-found fame or astronomically increased expectations.  He finished 2009 ranked number eight in the world, his first Top Ten finish ever, and powered his way to the Top Five in 2010.  He showed no fear going into the 2010 French Open where he had the bulk of his points to defend.  He made it all the way back to the final and he did it in style, defeating a guy named Roger Federer in the quarterfinals.  Rafael Nadal got the best of him in the final that year, but one thing was for sure- Robin Soderling 2.0 was not a fluke.  He was here to stay, and it was time for the rest of us to get used to it.

Things came full circle in he fall of 2010 when he went back to his beloved indoor courts to win the biggest title of his career, the Paris Masters, by defeating hometown favorite Gael Monfils in the Final.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IFqjwYzZRK4

Despite only playing for seven months and battling nagging injuries and illness for most of the spring, Soderling still managed to win four titles this year.  Four!

Tennis is a scarier place when Robin Soderling is around.  He has the potential to beat any player on any surface at any time, and he’s proven that he’s not too scared or intimated to do it.  Tennis needs that.  We as fans need that.  This sport is at it’s best when it’s knocked off balance, when it feels like anything is possible, when there are dynamites in the draw.

Let’s face it, we didn’t fall in love with tennis because of the security it provided.  That’s not who tennis fans are.  We love the heart-attacks, the unpredictability, the nauseating knowledge that nothing is a given.  We love the underachievers, the floaters, and especially the villains.

Get well soon, Robin.  We can’t wait to have you back.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_gWXXSEvg30
(Thanks to my twitter followers for sharing their favorite Soderling moments with me this week, especially @A_Gallivant and @ptenisnet for the links to the videos above.)

Andy Murray has the perfect opportunity to attain that elusive first Grand Slam

Andy Murray

As first round matches came to a close on Wednesday, thing appear to be progressing more or less according to plan thus far in the men’s draw at the U.S. Open.

Andy Murray advanced against former NCAA standout Somdev Devvarman by a score of 7-6(5), 6-2, 6-3. Murray mentioned he felt some early match nerves and when asked to explain gave a rather humorous response.

“Well, I mean, try being a British player going into a Grand Slam.  It’s not easy (smiling).”

With Roger Federer struggling this summer and Rafael Nadal also seeming less-than-perfect, Murray might have the perfect opportunity to attain that elusive first Grand Slam. He certainly seemed to be handling Novak Djokovic as well as anyone could in his first set against the Serb in Cincinnati. Djokvic would retire while trailing 0-3 in the second set of that match citing shoulder pain.

In other matches today, American John Isner beat a tricky opening round opponent in Marcos Baghdatis, 7-6(2), 7-6(11), 2-6, 6-4. With Robin Soderling withdrawing in this section of the draw due to illness, Isner has a great chance to make the round of sixteen and maybe even a quarter-final at a Slam for the first time in his career.

Isner will now face compatriot Robby Ginepri who only started his season in June after injury issues. He won today against Joao Suza in four sets. Many will remember Ginepri for his loss against Andre Agassi in the semi-finals here in 2005.

2009 champion Juan Martin Del Potro destroyed Filippo Volandri 6-3, 6-1, 6-1. Known more for his clay-court exploits, Volandri has not won a match on hard-courts since 2007. Del Potro couldn’t have asked for an easier match in his return to Flushing Meadows.

Forced to miss defending his title a year ago due to a wrist injury, Del Po has returned to the top-twenty in the game and appears to have a good shot of advancing deep into the draw.

The Argentine mentioned several times after the match how happy he was to return to his favorite Grand Slam tournament following his inability to play a year ago.

“Well, I am feeling very special these couple of days, because I wasn’t here last year so I couldn’t see my name in the locker room,” DelPotro said. “That’s special, but are pretty little details. But, you know, it’s an honor be part of the champions of this tournament.”

Canadian Vasek Pospisil is giving fans in his country reason to cheer in the absence of Milos Raonic. The 20 year old Canuck won his first ever Grand Slam match against Lukas Rosol with ease 6-1, 6-2, 6-1. Pospisil will now face Feliciano Lopez the 25th seed.

12th seeded Gilles Simon survived a marathon five-set match against Ricardo Mello of Brazil, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4. 3-6, 6-4. The Frenchman will now go up against Guillermo Garcia-Lopez of Spain who also required five sets to advance to the second round.

The only seeded player to fall on day three was Nicolas Almagro, the 10th seed, who was beat by French veteran Julien Benneteau 6-2, 6-4, 6-3. I’d hardly consider that result an upset since Almagro rarely performs on this surface while Benneteau made the finals a week ago of the inaugural event in Winston Salem where he was defeated by Isner for the title.

In the final match of the night amongst the men, Andy Roddick needed a four set struggle to finally overcome 33 year-old Michael Russell, 6-2, 6-4, 4-6, 7-5.

Roddick seemed to be moving along quite well until Russell experienced a resurgence in the third set. It was not meant to be for the veteran however, as he fell to 0-7 in matches at the Open.

Roddick now moves on to face youngster Jack Sock who at the age of 18 is making just his second appearance in a major.

Roddick got a good laugh out of the crowd as he assessed his next foe in Sock.

“Well, I know he’s full of piss and vinegar and he’s from Nebraska. Sounds a little bit like an 18 year old I knew once upon a time. I like Jack a lot. He had a good win and I’m excited…I’ll take on the young American and I’ll enjoy it.”

It is nice to see Sock, along with Ryan Harrison and Donald Young emerging to form the next generation of American players. Thirty-one straight majors without a U.S. champion is a strange reality after so many decades of success. Perhaps one of these young guns can one day reverse this declining trend in tangible results at the Grand Slam level.

Andy Murray is a headcase, Kim Clijsters can’t catch a break and Serena Williams gives tennis clinic – The Friday Five

Andy Murray

By Maud Watson

The Outlier

That’s probably the most accurate term to describe the head case that is Andy Murray. For the past 12-18 months, commentators and other tennis pundits have tried to group him with Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer, calling them the “big four.” But with no major title and currently standing approximately 3,000 points behind No. 3 Federer, Murray has yet to prove he belongs with that trio. Does he have the talent to be there? Some of his previous wins over the top three would certainly suggest so. He’s also nearly 2,000 points ahead of current number five Robin Soderling. But after yet another listless performance in Montreal that marked an early exit in another top tier event, Murray is looking more like he’s prepping to step down to the level of a Soderling or a Ferrer rather than up to the highest echelons. What’s worse is that he almost seems resigned to it. It’s not to take away from what Kevin Anderson did to Murray in Montreal. The guy is a talented player who played a complete match. But Murray not only failed to use his brain to change it up and at least make Anderson feel the pressure of putting away the higher ranked player, at one point he merely shrugged his shoulders as if to say that he was just going to accept today was not going to be his day. Even a patented Murray tantrum would have been preferred to the performance fans witnessed on Tuesday. And as he heads towards his mid-twenties, Murray and his supporters would be right to start asking themselves if he has what it takes between the ears to win the big one. He needs a coach, and he needs someone to right the ship fast, or he is destined to go down as one of the game’s biggest underachievers.

Rattling the Confidence

After securing the first set 6-1 against Ivan Dodig, Rafael Nadal appeared like he was going to have the easiest day at the office of the ATP’s top three. Unfortunately for Nadal, his opponent had other ideas. He fought back from a break down in the second to eventually force a tiebreak and ultimately a third set. In the third, Dodig was forced to dig deep on multiple occasions, coming back yet again from a break down when Nadal served for the match to eventually force another tiebreak. The Croat held his nerve better than Nadal, which saw him cross the finish line the victor. For sure, Nadal had little practice preparation coming into his first tournament since Wimbledon, but given his track record this year, cruising through the first set, being up a break in both the second and third sets, and even serving for the match, there’s little doubt that this loss has to be a blow to the Spaniard’s confidence. Keep an eye out as to how he rebounds in Cincy, because while an early loss there will not necessarily equate to a poor showing at Flushing Meadows (champions do possess that ability to flip the switch on the game’s biggest stages), you can be sure that there will be plenty of other players eager to take a shot at Nadal who may just be ripe for the upset.

Can’t Catch a Break

If it’s not one thing, it’s another for Kim Clijsters. The Belgian was making a much anticipated return to play in Toronto after an injury layoff. All eyes were on the defending US Open champion, eager to see where her game was as she preps to defend her title in a few weeks’ time, but it was not to be. After leading Zheng Jie by a set, Clijsters was forced to pull the plug early in the second due to a small tear in her abdominal muscle. She hasn’t ruled herself out of the US Open, stating that she knows she still has a few weeks to prepare and get healthy, but with her subsequent forced withdraw from Cincinnati next week, no matter how you slice it, this will hurt her odds of securing a third straight US Open title.

Potential Favorite

She wasn’t really ready for it at Wimbledon, but with the brand of tennis coming off her racquet this hard court season, Serena Williams has already made a case to be tagged as the No. 1 favorite heading into the US Open. In California, she put on a clinic against both Sharapova and Lisicki, and though she was fortunate to avoid going the distance with Bartoli after the Frenchwoman failed to secure the first set, her win there in the final only served as a reminder to the rest of the field that she’s one of the toughest players to put away. She has looked strong this week in Toronto, and between injuries and inconsistencies among the other top-ranked players, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more suitable player to name the top favorite going into the final major of 2011.

Cracking at the Seams

Maybe it’s unfair to pick on Caroline Wozniaki for her early loss in Toronto. Several of the other top seeds have also bowed out early. But given her rep as the WTA’s most consistent performer – the method by which she climbed to the top of the rankings – her loss deserves a bit more scrutiny. Perhaps all of the questions from the media regarding her legitimacy at the top, or suggestions of needing a new voice in her ear, are starting to get to her. We’ll see how she does throughout the rest of the tune-up events leading into the US Open, but she may not even be deserving of a contender label. Of course, flying under the radar might turn out to be one of the best things for her.

Wozniacki’s new boyfriend, Serena Williams uses protected ranking, Dulko gets married – The Friday Five

Caroline Wozniacki
By Maud Watson

Righting the Ship

Last weekend saw two ATP stars move towards getting their game’s back on track and hopefully gaining confidence going into the summer season. Robin Soderling played some stellar tennis against a competitive field to take the title in his home country, defeating David Ferrer, on clay, in the final – which is no easy feat. The big-hitting Swede should take heart from this win going into the summer hard court swing, where his heavy groundstrokes should see him stage a successful summer campaign. Stuttgart victor Juan Carlos Ferrero took a very different path to his first title of 2011. The field there fell apart, but it didn’t make his win any less impressive. Playing in just his third tournament back since a lengthy layoff from wrist and knee surgeries, the former French Open champion showed glimpses of the form that took him to the No. 1 ranking, and certainly played above his then-current ranking of 85. The win gave him a much needed boost in the standings, and though he lost early in Hamburg, he will still undoubtedly take plenty of positives from Stuttgart regarding where his game is and where it can still go.

Sighs of Relief

There were probably many sighs of relief throughout the WTA when earlier this week it was announced that Serena Williams would be using her protected No. 1 ranking to enter the US Open. After sitting out more than six months with various health issues, Serena has the option to use the protected ranking for up to eight tournaments including one major. There had been some speculation as to whether Williams would instead take a wildcard that the USTA would have undoubtedly offered had the American asked, but Williams has wisely chosen to use the protected ranking. It will provide her a far better opportunity to play her way into the draw, and while the American is probably going to have to play more tennis than she is accustomed to doing in order to get the ranking up, the odds of her not having a sufficiently high enough ranking to gain direct entry into the 2012 Australian Open are slim to none (and even if on the odd chance that she’s still outside of the top 105 come 2012, it would be utterly shocking if Australian Open organizers didn’t provide her with a wildcard). You can bet that the rest of the top seeds are also happy with Serena’s decision, as none of them wanted to see her on the other side of the net in the early rounds.

New “It” Couple?

The rumor mill is abuzz with the possibility that current World No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki is more than just a close friend of newest golf sensation Rory McIlroy. A source posted pictures of the two sharing dinner and a kiss last week in London. With the skyrocketing popularity of the young golfer and Wozniacki already touted as one of the glam gals of the WTA, they are set to become one of the sporting world’s newest hot couples. Perhaps a McIlroy sighting in Wozniacki’s box in the near future along with the inevitable press conference questions to follow will confirm the rumors.

Common Sense

After throwing out statements over the last 12 months stating that he was contemplating a return to the ATP World Tour, Mark Philippoussis has now confirmed that he is no longer harboring such ambitions. The Australian says that he is enjoying life on the seniors’ tour, as well as getting in some surfing on the side. It has to be said that much of the trouble in his life has been self-inflicted, but it’s nice to see that Philippoussis has made a smart decision that will hopefully pay dividends and start bringing him more stability in his life.

Off the Market

Gisela Dulko, who finished as the No. 1 doubles player in 2010 with partner Flavia Pennetta and was subsequently named Argentina’s Sportswoman of the Year, may be breaking several male hearts next week. According to Spanish press, the Argentine is set to marry Real Madrid player Fernando Gago next Tuesday in her home country. But even if she is officially off the market, she’ll still, as they say, “put butts in the seats.”

Venus Williams crime, Date-Krumm most entertaining, Serena Williams moans about Wimbledon – The Friday Five

Kimiko Date-Krumm
By Maud Watson

Ego Check

Playing in just her second tournament back from a nearly year-long hiatus, Serena Williams finds herself in the third round of Wimbledon. Most players would be happy with this result, but instead of focusing on the positive, Serena chose to take offense at the fact that she had been scheduled on Court 2 for Thursday’s order of play. In short, the complaint was out of line. On paper, the six matches scheduled for Centre Court and Court 1 were better matchups, and many of them contained stars equally as big as Serena. And for those top names or up-and-comers who aren’t the household name that Serena is, it was still nice to see them rewarded with a chance to play on the big stage, as they are the ones who have supported their respective tours instead of just showing up to play the majors and maybe a handful of premiere events (something the Williams Sisters are notorious for doing even when 100% healthy). And as for her comment that the men’s champions are not as frequently banished to Court 2, perhaps that’s because for as many Serena fans as there are out there, there’s also a large number who’d love to see her lose. She isn’t nearly as diplomatic or proven to be as endearing as say the likes of Roger Federer have historically shown to be over the years. So Serena needs to get over it. She already had one shot to play on Centre Court this tournament, and she’s in with more than a decent chance to progress in the tournament and showcase her talents on either of the two main courts in the future.

Turning Point

Since splitting with coach Magnus Norman, Robin Soderling has struggled to find consistent footing. But his second round victory over Lleyton Hewitt may just provide him with the confidence and consistency he’s been seeking. Down two sets to none, the big-serving Swede found a way to turn it around for a W – never an easy task against a former champion, even if he’s in the twilight of his career. Players who escape from the jaws of defeat often find new life, so be sure to keep an eye on Soderling. He’s poised to potentially make a big run and get his power game back on track for the rest of the season.

Turning Back the Clock

She may have ultimately come out on the wrong end of Wednesday’s epic battle, but veteran Kimiko Date-Krumm deserves to be thrown a bone for the entertaining performance she put on against Venus Williams. At the age of 40, she was by far the oldest woman in the draw, but she hardly looked her age as she used every inch of her 5’4” frame to cover every angle of the court in pursuit of victory. She showed great variety and exhibited deft touch in her many ventures to the net, showing all of us how grass court tennis used to and still should be played. She left it all on the court, throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Venus before finally succumbing 8-6 in the third. And even though the scoreboard recorded a loss, there’s little doubt that Date-Krumm walked off the court a winner in the eyes of many fans.

Possible Blessing

It’s not often that one would call an injury a blessing, but this injury setback for Sam Querrey may prove to be just that. John Isner stated earlier this week that his frequent doubles partner has undergone surgery to remove bone spurs in his right elbow and will be out for the next couple of months. Querrey is a talented player who definitely has the potential to be a mainstay in the Top 20, if not higher. Unfortunately, his head and heart haven’t been it so much the last 12-16 months. With the American hard court season coming up, the timing of the forced layoff leaves much to be desired, but it may just prove to be the mental break Querrey needs. Furthermore, he may come back with more of an appreciation for the opportunity his talent has given him, spurring him to bigger and more consistent results in the future.

Crime of Fashion

Someone call the fashion police! Alright, so neither Venus Williams nor Bethanie Mattek-Sands were technically in violation of Wimbledon’s dress code, but their choice of attire has left much to be desired. Mattek-Sands, who has connections with Lady Gaga’s designer, took to the court wearing a tennis ball-covered jacket that when removed, revealed a long sleeve/short sleeve top (an unoriginal concept that has been sported by other players in the past). But at least Mattek-Sands is intentionally trying to be outrageous and is aware that her outfit will never be mainstream. Venus Williams is also trying to be original, though she seems under the impression that her designs are really something special and beautiful. But at this year’s Championships, she’s once again come out wearing a flop, as her half-a-toga dress has been nothing but the butt of jokes in tennis circles. The only good thing is that Wimbledon’s conservative dress code and predominantly-white rule have saved us all from enduring anything similar to the getups she sported earlier in the year down in Melbourne. With the atrocious attire these two have shown in the opening week of Wimbledon, you can bet that fashion critics around the globe will be collectively holding their breath to see what these two come up with when it’s time for the US Open.

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