It’s been over a year since Robin Soderling has played a tennis match on the ATP Tour. According to a recent ESPN report, he’s still struggling with his health, but hasn’t given up hope of returning someday. We ponder Soderling’s future, and relive some of his best career moments in a Changeover Chat, a quick back and forth between the writing staff at The Changeover.
Amy: As someone with an undeniable preference for flat hitters, I’ve been missing Soderling badly since 2011. He went from being No. 5 in the world to just disappearing.
Lindsay: I miss him so, so very much.
Amy: I miss him sitting underneath his towel during changeovers.
Juan José: It could’ve been him in our logo!
Amy: Maybe someday we can change it up!
Lindsay: I feel like we’d just gotten to know him, even though he’d been on tour for so long. We were just getting to see his personality and game blossom. And then he was gone.
Juan José: It’s one of those little breaks that have helped the consolidation of the Big Four, I think. The General was threatening to break through … and then got a terrible case of mono, and now it sounds as if he might not be back on a tennis court at all.
Amy: Back when he was playing, it always bothered me that so many people viewed him as the ATP villain. Ever since the 2007 incident with Nadal, he got cast in a role that I think wasn’t at all who he is.
Juan José: Well, he wasn’t doing a whole lot to help his cause.
Amy: How so? What did he do other than that one incident?
Juan José: I think what turned the corner for him in that aspect was teaming up with Magnus Norman. Before Norman, Soderling was pretty much isolated from everyone on tour. Wouldn’t greet or acknowledge most people. But Soderling said that Norman showed him that being a little more social was going to work for him, since people didn’t seem to recognize that he was just a shy introvert.
Amy: Yeah, I just chalk his bad reputation up to him being a shy, quiet guy.
Lindsay: He just wasn’t ever buddy buddy with anyone. I think that happens to guys from the smaller countries, they’re seen as loners. The tour can be clique-y. The Spanish-speaking guys stick together. The Americans stick together. If you’re not outgoing, and you’re just going about your business, you can come off as stand-offish when that’s not really the case.
Lindsay: Robin Haase once told me he had that problem. He solved it by hanging out with Jarkko Nieminen. (This isn’t helping Sod’s case.)
Amy: But really, he never pulled a Llodra or anything.
Juan José: No, not at all.
Amy: I think the worst part about his long absence is that he was playing such incredible tennis right before he got sick. In the last match he played, he demolished Ferrer, 6-2, 6-2 on clay, winning the title in Bastad. I remember thinking after that match how bright his future looked.
Amy: To me, the biggest difference between Soderling and the others who are in a similar position now (Tsonga, Berdych, et al.) is that he didn’t really have a mental block in big matches against the Big Four from 2009 on. Yes, he lost some matches to those guys because they were better or more consistent than him, but he never choked in the way we saw from Tsonga at this year’s French Open. That’s what I miss the most. Nobody in the second tier of players really has that quiet self-confidence.
Juan José: He had a huge block against Federer, until he finally broke through (that head-to-head is still a gory 1-16, though). But to piggyback on your point, while Soderling had piled up quite a few losses against the Big Four before his breakthrough in 2009, I don’t think the General had a block against them after that. Particularly after winning the Paris M1000 in 2010 and winning smaller tournaments during 2011. He was consolidating himself as a true top 5 guy, even top 4. And then … mono ruined everything.
Lindsay: Everyone throws around the word “villain” like it’s a bad thing, but I think on the court it made him special. He wasn’t out there to be best friends with anyone. That didn’t mean he was a mean guy, it just meant he took his job seriously. And once he realized he could beat the top guys, he wanted to do it every time. Zero reverence.
Amy: Exactly. He was out there to win the match, no matter who he was playing against. He wasn’t battling himself more than his opponent like we’ve seen Tsonga and Berdych do so many times against the top guys.
Lindsay: I find it interesting that these days Federer and Nadal fans wax nostalgic about Soderling, when he beat both of them in majors. That’s so rare. So, what was your favorite Sod memory?
Amy: One of my favorite memories was when he made his amazing run to the 2009 Roland Garros final. Before that tournament, Soderling had never been past the third round at a Major, which is just amazing if you think about it.
Lindsay: I agree. And it wasn’t just the upset over Nadal, though that was huge. The match vs. Gonzales was INSANE.
Amy: Yup. He was down 4-1 in the final set.
Lindsay: I think the craziest thing about Soderling was that his breakthrough was on clay, when before that he was known as an indoor (primarily carpet!) specialist.
Amy: Another amazing part of Soderling making the 2009 Roland Garros final was that he backed it up by doing it again the next year.
Juan José: Well, the reality about Soderling is that he was a guy with a big game who underperformed for most of his career.
Lindsay: So Juan José, you’re saying that the book on Soderling should be that he’s an underachiever?
Juan José: I think what I’m trying to say is that Soderling was a career underachiever who routinely came up short until 2009, when he started to play with more confidence, improved his backhand, and moved all the way into the top 5. And then, just as he was consolidating himself at the top, he was forced to disappear.
Here’s something about pre-2009 Soderling: the year before his big breakthrough at the French Open, Soderling made two finals on consecutive weeks, in medium-sized tournaments (Rotterdam and Memphis, both of which became ATP 500s the year after) and lost both to random people. In Rotterdam he lost to 58th-ranked Llodra, and in Memphis he fell to none other than Steve Darcis, ranked No. 81 at the time. Later in the year he lost the Stockholm final to Nalbandián, but managed to win Lyon, where he faced everyone’s favorite opponent in an ATP final, Julien Benneteau.
By the end of 2008, Robin Soderling was ranked at a career-high of … 17. Like Amy said earlier, he had never made it past the third round of a Grand Slam. Soderling had won three titles (all very small: Lyon twice, and Milan) and six final appearances. That was it. Someone with his level of talent, who ended up becoming a top 4 guy and two-time Grand Slam finalist later on, was definitely leaving money on the table at that point.
Lindsay: He beat Roddick twice in 2008. That was annoying.
Juan José: In a sense, maybe Soderling serves as a cautionary tale to underachievers everywhere, because we hear about how “it’s never too late” for talented players to “get it”.
Amy: I have to say, I don’t like the underachiever label for him. I prefer the late bloomer label.
Lindsay: Neither do I, Amy. He’s a late bloomer who got caught in a storm right after he blossomed.
Juan José: Well, he didn’t leave the game last year as an underachiever. But he sure was one before 2009, which puts him as an underachiever until around age 25.
Amy: Not everyone gets it together at the age of 22.
Lindsay: I sure didn’t.
Juan José: The cautionary tale is this: things can go wrong with your health at any point in time, so if you’re super talented and hanging around, wasting time, you never know what could happen to you when you finally “get it.” You might not have as much time as you thought.
Amy: Soderling falls into that category of guys recently who have experienced their career highs a little later in their twenties. But his ceiling was higher than someone like Mardy Fish.
Juan José: Right!
Lindsay: Poor Mardy Fish.
Juan José: Mardy Fish is another. Right as he got it together … sickness.
Lindsay: I think my favorite Soderling memory is not just his run to the final at the French Open, but THAT SPEECH. Yoking. It was a classic. Warmed my cold-during-clay-season heart.
Amy: Getting bageled and breadsticked by Julien Benneteau?
Lindsay: That was MY favorite moment.
Juan José: I watched him destroy Mónaco in the first round, 2, 3 and 1. It was just so violent to see Soderling trash Mónaco (who was having a good year) like that. He was blasting that forehand all over the place, and everybody was so confused because the guy had managed to win all of one match at Roland Garros before that.
Lindsay: Then Benny killed him.
Juan José: Soderling then trashed Capdeville in similar fashion, and was trashing Benneteau (breadsticked him in the first and was up a break or two in the second), lost the plot, and meekly went away against none other than Julien Benneteau. Because Benneteau is so scary.
I remember following that match thinking, “What the heck, dude?” I mean, he seemed to be in complete control of the match, and then he absolutely lost it. That’s the first time that I thought that maybe this strange Swede could actually become more than just an indoor specialist. The clay gave him more time to set up for his shots, and he was playing with reckless abandon. Moving better, too.
Amy: A sign of things to come.
Lindsay: I still think watching him win the Paris Masters was my all-time favorite memory. It was like it all came together — the giant slaying and the indoor dominance. His match vs. Llodra was just insane. Tennis on fast courts is fun!
Juan José: But which giant did he slay in Paris, Lindsay? Roddick? He beat Simon, Wawrinka, Roddick, Llodra and Monfils en route to the title. MURDERER’S ROW.
Lindsay: Hahaha. Okay, giant slaying is a bit extreme. But it was his biggest title, and Roddick and Monfils were playing really well that week.
Amy: You’re such a wet blanket, Juan José. We want to remember him as THE GREATEST PLAYER OF ALL TIME.
Juan José: Sorry, DIDN’T READ THE MEMO. But I’m laughing anyway. Also, I’d argue that facing Monfils in a final is probably your best bet to win a title. Unless you’re Benneteau.
Lindsay: Now you’re just twisting the knife. Hey, do you remember the time Sod tweeted about jelly beans? It was the night after he played Kolya and Kolya retired. The next day, he had to play Federer, and this was how he was preparing:
Having Pizza, coke, and jellybeans for dinner in my bed. I know its not good, but I think I deserve it tonite!!!!!
— Robin Söderling (@RSoderling) September 7, 2009
Juan José: Dinner of champions! Remember that goofy picture session with him in Roman war gear?
Amy: That picture is great. Here’s my favorite Soderling interview. He imitates an Aussie accent at 2:00 to great comic effect:
Juan José: How about … Almagro? (Yeah right.)
Amy: Stan Wawrinka.
Juan José: That’s a good one.
Lindsay: Yeah, Stan fits the bill.
Amy: I really like his game. He can do more. And he’s 27, so he’s not considered a youngster anymore.
Lindsay: If we’re looking at the younger generation, then I can see a guy like Milos coming alive around 25.
Amy: Maybe if he learns to move his feet and return serve.
Lindsay: Maybe Sam Querrey? Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking …
Juan José: I like Querrey. That might happen. Querrey has the game. Definitely has the tools.
Amy: Querrey is a decent comparison. He’s 25 now. But I do seriously question his shot selection on a regular basis.
Lindsay: That flat forehand. I always wanted Magnus to go coach Querrey.
Amy: He’s on the upswing lately. His match against Djokovic in Paris was great. And then he lost to Llodra, so that was odd.
Lindsay: So, back to Soderling. Do we think he can come back?
Juan José: I wish I could say yes … but after reading that ESPN article, I’m really not sure. It doesn’t look good. It seems like he’s due for a brief comeback, like Ancic, and then a quick retirement.
Amy: I’m choosing to believe he can, even though I know it’s highly unlikely. Until he says he’s retiring, I’ll stick with that. He did say he thinks he has another five years in him, career-wise. And the original headline on the ESPN story was a bit melodramatic for the actual contents of the piece. (“Robin Soderling still eyeing comeback, accepts that career may be over.”)
Juan José: Agreed. ESPN was going for the tears there.
Amy: I know mono can be killer, but some people do recover. It just depends whether that’s the case for him. And if he does recover fully, it will come down to whether he really wants it or not. Coming back after such a long time is just daunting, and he’s not getting any younger.
Juan José: What was worrisome about that article is that nobody seems to be able to predict when it is that he won’t have issues practicing at the tour level.
Amy: Well, he’s periodically been hitting, but you’re right, it doesn’t sound like he’s nearly back to a normal routine.
Lindsay: It’s so crazy that he has Mario Ancic’s coach. I mean, COME ON. What are the odds?
Amy: It’s a freaky turn of events.
Juan José: I thought about the same thing. That has to suck for the coach, no?
Amy: His coach, Fredrik Rosengren, just took a job as Sweden’s Davis Cup coach, and said he would like Robin to play for the Davis Cup team someday. I’m not sure he would say that if he thought it was entirely out of the question that Robin could come back. But it’s also not an encouraging sign that Rosengren is no longer working with him regularly. It doesn’t seem to suggest that Soderling is realistically eyeing a comeback in the near future.
Juan José: One thing – both Ancic and Soderling played through bad mono for a while, not knowing what was wrong with them. Only when things got horrible did they stop. I wonder if that’s what made the whole thing worse. It’s hinted in that article, and that’s what people say about mono.
Amy: Very true, Juan José. You know, I was watching a video the other day. It was an interview with Soderling posted by the Head Tennis Facebook page. He was talking about winning the title in Paris in late 2010. He said he played through a fever the entire tournament. I couldn’t help but wonder if he was experiencing signs of that mono even as far back as then. I’m not sure if that’s plausible from a medical perspective, but it made me think.
Juan José: Possible, and it tells you that Soderling will play through anything. Which is not necessarily a good thing.
Amy: So, any final thoughts?
Juan José: I miss the General. I miss using that nickname, General Sod (copyright here). Big hitters like him provide great theater when mixed with the Big Four. Great matches ensue. I miss his weird forehand, and his weird serve. And his general weirdness.
Lindsay: I think that players like Soderling remind us never to write the obituary of a player before their careers are up. We need that. He gives me hope that some of these talented players will put it all together someday.
Amy: My final thought is I hope he can come back, because the ATP Tour is better when he’s around. But if he can’t, I hope he enjoys his life as a new father.