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We Miss You Robin Soderling

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.)