“His forehand is a velvet sledgehammer.” That was Australian commentator Todd Woodbridge’s initial description of Robin Soderling’s best shot on Sunday in Brisbane. It didn’t take long for Woodbridge to amend the statement. “Actually, it’s more like just a pure sledgehammer.”
The second analysis was the accurate one. “Velvet” is not a word that comes to mind when watching Soderling stalk a tennis court and punish every tennis ball that has the misfortune of finding itself on his side of the net. But “sledgehammer” is just right. His swings on both sides are as raw and unpolished as any pros’. At the moment they’re also as effective as anyone's.
Soderling’s performance in Brisbane was impressive to the point of startling. He didn’t face a break point against Roddick, he out-served him, and he dictated the rallies. What was most surprising was that even when Soderling wasn’t dictating, he still wasn’t losing many of them with unforced errors. We know the Swede has power, we know he is a walking sledgehammer, but if he’s also going to be as consistent as a grinder like Roddick, he’s going to be that much tougher to beat.
There’s a new coach in Soderling’s corner, Claudio Pistolesi. Reportedly, he was choice number three or four or even five. All of his fellow Swedes turned Soderling down. Pistolesi appears to be a calm presence in the player’s box, but on the evidence of this match and most of last week he has Soderling playing with more outward positive energy then he has shown before. In the old days, he got negative very easily, and even in the new days, when he’s been winning, Soderling’s demeanor has remained scowly and harsh. Against Roddick, the scowl was intact, but the body language was more upbeat and proactive than I’ve seen it.
I asked at the end of last year whether Soderling can now be placed among the game’s “elite.” It depends on how you define that term, of course—like “second tier” and “one of the favorites to win such-and-such tournament. . .” it’s a meaningless phrase. But where would sports fans be without meaningless speculation? Not on a tennis blog, that's for sure. But if you consider Andy Murray among the game’s elite—I do—you now have to place the Sod there as well. He’s reached the same number of Grand Slam finals and, as of today, is ranked ahead of him. Soderling will go into the Australian Open as the fourth seed, bumping Murray down to No. 5 (that may not be a bad thing for Murray; that’s where he was last year when he knocked off Nadal in the quarters and reached the final). Starting fresh and healthy in 2011, Soderling seems to believe he belongs there.
What about his opponent, Andy Roddick? The American has become a kind of litmus test for elite status. If you can beat him, you’ve made it. He looked sharp for much of the week, but there was an extra testiness to him as well. He was bothered by losing a set to Kevin Anderson and got into multiple arguments with his favorite chair umpire, Fergus Murphy. I wonder sometimes whether that edge of seriousness keeps him from playing a little more loosely ands freely, from taking a few more risks with his ground strokes. He knows he can beat almost everyone by staying within his big serve/no UFE system. But to beat Soderling the way he was playing yesterday, Roddick needed to get the big guy moving, and that required more risk than he likes to take.
If anyone deserves the term “velvet sledgehammer” at the moment, it’s Roger Federer. As impressive as Soderling was, Federer outdid him with his play in Doha. Like the Sod, Federer didn’t lose a set on his way to the title there. Didn’t lose a set and barely broke a sweat in the desert heat.
Federer’s game has changed with Paul Annacone. The backhand is simply better. He’s taking it earlier, hitting over it more often, and snapping it crosscourt as if it’s a second forehand (it reminds me of Sampras’s backhand when he was at his mid-90s peak). On the forehand side Federer is playing with less risk and more efficiency. He still hits it for winners, but he doesn’t go for the lines as often. He uses it to transition forward and does enough to stay in control of a point. Ditto for his serve; placement and consistency, rather than bombs, are the watchwords on that shot at the moment. We know from his playing style and his work with the later Sampras that Annacone is a pragmatist of the first order—he’s good at finding exactly what works and not trying to do a whole lot more. That seems to be suiting Federer’s game just fine. His shot-making is such that you can rein him in a little without turning him into a too-safe grind, without costing him his natural gunslinging advantage.
Is Federer now the “favorite” going to Australia? Judging the future by the past, even the immediate past is a fool’s game—no player can go two weeks without at least the hint of a bad day, no matter what kind of roll he's on. That said, though, yeah, Federer is the favorite. Just as in London, he was so slashingly sharp and self-assured in Doha that it seemed to me that he had grown a little taller. If he can do that at 29, he really can do anything.