by Matthew Laird
It isn’t often that you get the chance to say this, but Robin Soderling’s defeat of Roger Federer in the French Open quarterfinals swung completely on a single point. With the match tied at one set apiece, Soderling was serving to stay in the set, down 4-5. He gets down a break point – which is also a set point – and after a big serve followed by a powerful forehand, both of which forced weak replies from Federer, the defending champion barely manages an attempt at a lob that just gets past the net.
Soderling runs up to meet it and smacks the ball for what looks like an easy put away: a half-smash out of the court that should be landing in the fourth or fifth row. The ball soars into the air, and it almost certainly looks like a winner. Against any other player, it probably would have been. But Federer sees that Soderling is going behind him with his shot at the net, so he pivots and backs up. He gets probably eight feet wide of the doubles alley and even further back behind the baseline before he jumps, balletic, into the air. He swings his racket sideways like he was hitting a kickserve and catches the ball at the height of his swing, sending it knifing back into court. It must have been about twelve feet off the ground when he made contact with it.
Soderling could have been forgiven if he had turned his back to the net and stalked back to the baseline, assuming that he’d won the point. He nearly did. If you watch the replay (found on youtube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EyYHxAFwaIA at the 1:45 mark) you can see that he relaxed for a moment. But when he saw Federer moving sideways and back and noticed that his smash wasn’t quite as good as he thought it was, he got back on the balls of his feet and made sure he was ready for whatever Federer could come up with. His heart must jumped into his throat when he saw the shot that his opponent managed to pull off. This is not a shot that you can practice returning, because this is not a shot that you ever see: a slice smash from a dozen feet in the air, eight feet wide of the doubles alley and just as far behind the baseline. On most courts, that shot isn’t even possible because the court would have prohibited Federer’s chance to run it down. But Phillippe Chartrier is one of the most spacious courts in the world when it comes to room around the field of play, and that’s what allowed Federer a look at Soderling’s smash.
It looked like the ball was going to sail over Soderling’s left shoulder, almost down the sideline, hook into the middle of the court, and drop into just inside the baseline. Since the shot had such unusual spin, it was tough for Soderling to know how it was moving, and he didn’t have any time to figure it out. Most professional tennis players can predict how a ball is going to react after a bounce or how its spin will affect the path it’s taking through the air, because they’ve seen the vast majority of the possible ways that a tennis ball can be hit, in the course of the tens of thousands of balls they hit in their careers. But I think it’s fair to bet that Soderling hadn’t seen a shot like this often enough to know for sure how he should handle it. (It’s not that unusual a shot for Federer, though. You can see him making almost the same shot against Evgeny Korolev at the 2009 Australian Open here:
In a very impressive display of improvisation, the Swede responded by jumping up himself and going for a one-handed backhand overhead, one of the hardest and most awkward shots in the game for a player with a two-handed backhand to pull off. He flicked his racket up over his head and caught the ball at the perfect point, sending it squarely back into the open court for a winner. Since Federer was by now practically in the luxury boxes in the first row, he couldn’t make a play on it. The fact that Federer’s shot was so beautiful and smoothly-executed made it easy for people to forget just how difficult Soderling’s reply was, even though it looked clunky by comparison. He took the best kind of shot that Federer could come up with and handled it. Maybe not with ease, but certainly without any fanfare. You’d never guess from his reaction that he just saved set point by quashing what would have been one of the best shots of the year.
Can you imagine if Gael Monfils had made that shot?
As if the fact that it was one of the greatest exchanges of the tournament thus far wasn’t enough, it was on an absolutely essential point at a pivotal stage of the match. If Federer had gotten that shot past Soderling, or if he had missed that backhand overhead, not only would he have been up two sets to one, but he would demonstrated, as he almost always does, why people are so awed by what he can do. Because he will hit shots that you can’t even see coming, much less deal with. He would have broken Soderling’s spirit on that point, as well as his serve. That intimidation factor has been an important component of Federer’s dominance during the last half-decade. Tennis is such an intensely mental game that even the slightest edge can tip a match in your favor, and if you can get your opponent thinking that they can play as well as Soderling was in that set and still lose it on a circus shot like the one he very nearly pulled off, it becomes very difficult for them to harbor much belief that they’re going to walk away the victor. Federer may not hit shots like that on match point very often, but he’s won plenty of matches by hitting those sorts of ridiculous shots.
While it is impossible to speculate on what would have happened if that point had swung the other way, I think there’s a good chance that the we’d all be talking about a different kind of history being made. The Swede’s shot was, in fact, somewhat reminiscent of that infamous high backhand overhead that Andy Roddick sent sailing wide in the Wimbledon final last year. Roddick missed, lost the set, and eventually lost the match. The timing was really perfect for Soderling today. After saving set point, he went on to hold serve before the match was suspended for an hour-long rain delay. If he had just been broken before the rains came, he would have had a whole hour to sit in his locker room and think about what an amazing shot that was and how he was going to come back from two sets to one. Since he made that shot, Federer was the one stewing about what happened, and when play resumed, he dropped serve and lost the set 7-5. The momentum had clearly swung, and after getting back an early break in the fourth set, Soderling never let up.
Like I said, it doesn’t happen often where you can say with any confidence at all that a single point probably swung the match one way or another. It’s even rarer to be able to say that about a point that didn’t involve a choke from one of the players involved – think back to Berdych’s duffed volley on break point while up two sets to love against Federer in the 2009 Australian Open. But this was the two-shot exchange of the tournament as far as I’m concerned, played to perfection by both competitors involved. It’s very rare, almost unheard of, for Federer to come up with that kind of magic at an essential stage of a match and not come away with the point. That must have been just as discouraging for him as it usually is for his opponents when he makes that type of shot.
Soderling managed to pull off a pair of absolutely stunning feats: that absurdly difficult shot to save set point and then following it up with the even more difficult victory. For his first time in 13 meetings, he’s beaten Roger Federer. The question now is whether or not he can build on this victory, or if he’ll be sufficiently satisfied – or emotionally drained – from his win today to let his level of play drop. Last year, he was happy just to make it to the finals. This year, maybe he’ll want to go a step further.
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