Monday, November 23, 2009

Soderling Confidently Keeps Nadal Under His Thumb

Greetings WTF watchers,

Robin Soderling said that he "liked his chances" heading into the Barclays World Tour Finals.

To some that may have been a funny way to put it for an alternate who wouldn't have gained entry in the tournament if it hadn't been for Andy Roddick's ailing knee. But with a very strong indoor record of 3 career titles in 9 career finals on his resume, the hopeful Soderling was looking to find the positives about his game instead of the negatives. That, in a nutshell, is the difference between the old Soderling and the one who beat Rafael Nadal for the second consecutive time today in London.

Alternate or not, now that he's here, and now that he's taken out Rafael Nadal in straight sets, his chances do look a lot better than they did about 10 days ago, when the 25-year-old Swede was on the outside looking in.

Whether it was good luck that got Soderling to London, the fact of the matter is that his emergence as a top-10 player has been the product of something much more valuable than luck in tennis: Confidence. With Soderling, who was regarded by many as an underachiever until 2009, their is little doubt that he is a different player now than he was when his Grand-Slam season began with a thrashing at the hands of Marcos Baghdatis in Australia.

In that match Soderling showed the world why, in spite of his obvious physical gifts, that he was unable to gain consistent entry into the latter rounds of slams. He was rattled by the rowdy Cypriot supporters and proceeded to melt down mentally in a match that could have been his for the taking.

Not that there is any shame in losing to Baghdatis, who has played some of his best tennis down under, but Soderling let the crowd get under his skin in that match, and because of it, he took himself out of a match that he could have won.

It's hard to tell which came first for Soderling, the confidence or the victory. How does, all of a sudden, a player who has never been beyond the third round of a Slam upset the best clay court player of all-time and then proceed to roll to the finals at Roland Garros? Something clicked in Soderling's mind at some point. Maybe it was a storm that was brewing throughout his professional career, and the 6'4" Swede just needed a reason to believe.

My theory is that his contempt for Nadal fueled him to play like a raging beast in that 4-set earth-shattering match that set the tennis world on its ear. When it was over it was like the demons that had been plaguing Soderling for his whole career had been exorcised.

Once Le Sod realized just how much damage he could do while in "beast" mode, he decided that if he just kept that ornery mindset, but coupled it with a sense of calm, he could compete with anyone

And he has been more than just competitive. Since that loss to Baghdatis, Soderling did not lose to anyone other than Federer in the last three Slams of the year. And each of them (Finals in Paris, 4th round at Wimbledon, Quarter finals at U.S. Open) bested his previous best at each Slam.

The old Soderling is gone. He became the new Soderling on that crazy day in May, in what was perhaps the biggest upset in Grand-Slam history. It was also an exorcism of sorts.

The new Soderling just outplayed World No. 2 Rafael Nadal in a tense straight set victory that puts him, at least momentarily (he plays Djokovic today, and he's 0-5 against him), on the top of Group B.

What a difference six months makes.

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