by Pete Bodo
A really prescient tennis fan might have predicted that Robin Soderling would win the BNP Paribas Masters, his maiden blue-chip title, despite having been mired in a period of fairly average play. But who would have speculated that he’d do it without beating Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal?
After all, thus far Soderling has built his reputation less on significant titles earned than on noteworthy players beaten—he’s taken out Nadal and Federer at back-to-back French Opens and Djokovic at the premier sub-Slam, the ATP World Tour Finals of 2009. He didn’t win any of those events. Yesterday, he sloughed off the simplistic “giant killer” rep to establish himself as the new world No. 4 (replacing Andy Murray)—and a top contender for the upcoming tour championships.
Just how much this meant to Soderling was obvious from his disarming and frank comments after he capped his week in Paris with a win over the darling of the French crowds, Gael Monfils. It was a borderline blowout—Monfils lost the first set 6-1, and while he made a match, or at any rate a set of it, Soderling calmly and confidently shut him down in the decisive tiebreaker, giving up just one measly point and closing Monfils with his first match point.
“It feels great,” Soderling admitted. “I don't have a very good record in finals, and especially not here in Paris. I lost two finals at Roland Garros. Of course it's great to reach the final in a Grand Slam and also in a Masters 1000, but I think a final is that one match you really want to win.”
So let the speculation begin: Soderling won because he didn’t have to play any of the (previous) Top 4 players. Soderling was aided by not having to deal with the emotions, or sudden expectations, that are created when he knocks off one of the big guns. Soderling took advantage of a Monfils who had used up all his emotional energy, and a good deal of his physical reserves, in his epic battle with Federer in the semis.
Among those theories, the only one I’d dismiss out of hand is the first. It’s an insult to Soderling, the quiet, 26-year old who’s become a paragon of consistency and a reliable contender at significant tournaments. What this guy really needed was a break—a chance to run the table on a surface suitable to his power game, without having to perform miracles like, say, back-to-back wins over players ranked above him, one of whom happens to be the consensus Greatest Player of All Time. Let’s remember, his name begins with an “S,” not a “G.”
Or put it this way. Monfils, one of the more volatile players on the tour, was on a roll in what amounts to his hometown tournament. He was the toast of the town, and Paris isn’t exactly a cowtown. Granted, he was denied that extra day of rest granted to, say, Novak Djokovic, after the Serb’s big win over Federer in the U.S. Open semis. But would anyone have been surprised if Monfils, another Masters 1000 virgin, had been the one to punch through?
To those like me who believe in Soderling’s game, it was less about the fact that he won the title than the way he won it—bringing down that hammer of Thor on an extremely athletic, emotional player who was also on the brink of a career win, with the entire city of Paris pulling for him.
Soderling’s title was not only well-earned, but long deferred and well deserved.