Friday, March 19, 2010

Precision Bombing

Robin Soderling has always had a lethal game - now he's getting the results to match.

- Indian Wells, Ca.

I had suspected it. I had seen it on television. I have watched him climb the rankings of late. But after seeing him live, I've got a whole new appreciation for it.

The "it" I am talking about is the newest Swedish tennis sensation named Robin Soderling. The 6'4" 25-year-old has come a long way in a short time. Chronically labeled as an underachiever and a hothead, it turns out that Soderling may be none of those things that we thought he was and everything that we thought he could be.

Tennis is a puzzling sport at times, where yesterdays under achiever can quickly become today's late bloomer with a very legitimate shot at a Grand-Slam. Boris Becker came of age on the Wimbledon grass at the age of 17. For Soderling, the journey has been a more arduous one, but there is clear evidence now that he is also coming of age.

While Soderling was always a threat - he cracked the top-30 midway through 2006 - he was also unsure of just how to get the most out of his abilities. He lingered for a while there and raised a few eyebrows, then dropped down in the rankings again. While blessed with rare and impressive power, and surprisingly good speed for a man his size, the Timo, Sweden native struggled to stay in the top-30, in spite of his "top-10" game.

We didn't know it then, and we wouldn't know it until three years later, but the missing ingredient for Soderling wasn't in his game - it was in his head. He lacked the type of belief that would enable him to play the free-swinging in-your-face type of tennis that comes natural to him. The Soderling of days past played inhibited, doubtful tennis at times - and it showed in his ranking.

But that all changed last May. When Soderling abruptly ended the King of Clay's rein of terror over Roland Garros, it opened up a tunnel for Soderling. For years he had been chipping away, building his game, beefing up his serve, ground strokes, and footwork - but always he did so with a fatalistic sense of undisciplined agony.

When he conquered Rafael Nadal in a match that will forever be remembered as one of the greatest upsets of all time, a light suddenly appeared at the end of the tunnel. From that day on Soderling has never been the same. He's an engine of belief now. And the belief begets the bombs.

As I watched Soderling destruct Spaniard Felicano Lopez on Tuesday at Indian Wells, I was struck by a burgeoning sense of just how excellent Soderling is. Notice how I didn't say "how excellent he can be." Soderling is no longer a "what-if" type of player. He's a bona fide "watch-out-for-him" type of player, and Grand-Slam success could be the surprise that comes next.

Soderling's service game has developed into one of the best on tour. Not only is he able to generate 130-mph plus velocity, but he's also intelligent when he serves. He's got the sense to mix in varying degrees of slice, location, and velocity to keep his opponents perpetually off balance. Against Feliciano Lopez he offered up several serves with less pace and more spin on the first serve, much in the same way that a top line pitcher would throw his change up early in the count.

From the baseline he is equally nasty. A short ball against Soderling is a death wish. And the burly Swede is exceptional at gaining control of baseline rallies by using his forehand to put an opponent on the run. When you watch him play live, it is easy to see why he is so difficult to play against. His aggressive style puts him in control of so many points and that allows him to essentially take his foe out of the match. Additionally, his foot speed and movement are much better than he is given credit for.

When he's on, playing the type of tennis he was built to play, and believing that he can win, Soderling is a threat to beat any player on any stage. It's taken him 9 years since turning pro in 2001, but this late bloomer has finally come of age.


  1. Nice and thorough analysis that indicates how important it is to believe in yourself. Soderling will have a chance to prove in the coming months that he can stay up there with the top guys. But a Grand Slam title seems a bit over the top. He is for sure a top ten player but like many other top 10 players in todays tennis maybe it's not enough. After the Federer- Nadal era he will be too old and other young guns will start to climb as well (Del Potro, Cilic, Murray) are only a few names.

  2. A Slam crown will be a tall order, but it's not an impossibility like it seemed to be a year ago.

    I'll be really curious to see what kind of results he can generate on the clay this year - i.e. is he really a clay-courter or was RG a one-time thing?

  3. Insightful post about Soderling. I too saw him play live for the first time at IW and, although he grips his racquet like a frying pan, he definitely has no fear out there when playing the top guys. What I don't like is how the media, for some reason, keeps wanting to paint him as a "bad guy" or one that fans won't be able to like. Sure Soderling has had his issues in the past, but I'm not sure why he is being picked on by the media. In any event, I look forward to seeing him do well this year.

    And also thanks for posting the serving video. Good for us hackers out there.

  4. Erik,

    Erik, Agreed - Soderling had the incident with Nadal at 2007 Wimbledon (google if you haven't seen it - it's really kind of hilarious) and I think that hurt his image a bit. But he seems to be kind of shy and really pretty nice when he gets interviewed and in general. I think that guys like him and Cilic are really keeping the big four honest these days, and it's good for tennis in general.

    Frying pan? Well, said. He really paddles the forehand, that's for sure.


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