Robin Soderling always had game. It just took him seven years to learn how to use it. Can the sometimes surly Swede win fans over as well?
Gruff. A loner. Short temper. “Not the best guy in the locker room,” as Rafael Nadal put it in 2007. Definitely not your typical Swede. These were the sorts of things you used to hear about Robin Soderling. He had an awkward game, too, and didn’t seem likely to become more than a middling player.
How quickly life has changed for Soderling, 25, a broad-shouldered slugger from small-town Sweden. Before last year’s French Open, he was known less for what he had—huge strokes and a booming serve—than for what he didn’t, namely, footwork or any victories of consequence. Despite the fact that Soderling is 6-foot-3 and thickly built, has loads of power, and had a junior career that foreshadowed big things (he was ranked No. 4 in the world and won the Orange Bowl in 2001), he hadn’t escaped the third round at a major in 21 tries. Through 2008, he had an 11-29 record against Top 10 players. As tennis began to reward speed and movement rather than sledgehammer swings, Soderling had become a forgotten man even among the countrymen who had backed him and watched him since he was a teenager.
“Twenty-one Slams without going past the third round—that’s a lot with his potential,” says Sweden’s Jonas Bjorkman, who retired in 2008. “You started to think a little bit, Is he running out of time?”
Just as the clock seemed ready to tick zero, it happened. To say it was the upset of the 2009 season is an injustice. Soderling didn’t pull off a mere upset. He shook the Earth and changed history. Bjorkman describes it as the most stunning victory in tennis in the last 20 years, maybe longer. In the fourth round of the French Open, Soderling clubbed 61 winners over four sets and did something that no one had done before: He beat Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros. Nadal, ranked No. 1 at the time, was suffering from knee tendinitis and wasn’t at his best, but a bad day for Nadal on clay is still an exceptional one for anyone else. In one afternoon, Soderling altered the course of his career, sent Nadal into a downward spiral, and gave Roger Federer, who eventually beat Soderling in the French Open final, the break he needed in his quest to become the greatest player of all time.
The French Open often produces surprise finalists, but those players rarely sustain that high level of play (Martin Verkerk and Gaston Gaudio, anyone?). Not so with Soderling in 2009. A month later, he reached the fourth round of Wimbledon, where he lost to Federer in three close sets. (Federer in two straight majors? Bad luck.) At the U.S. Open, Soderling swiped a set from Federer before losing in the quarterfinals. (Three straight majors? Maybe it’s a curse.) Thanks to Andy Roddick’s injured knee, he finished the season by sneaking into his first ATP World Tour Finals, where he dismissed Nadal in straight sets before losing to Juan Martin del Potro in the semifinals. After ending 2008 ranked No. 17, Soderling finished 2009 at a career-high No. 8.
Soderling says he takes no additional pleasure in having made a name for himself at the expense of Nadal, his opponent in a rain-soaked, animosity-filled five-setter at Wimbledon in 2007. At the beginning of the fifth set, which took three days to complete, Soderling says he momentarily forgot that they were playing with new balls and ran to his chair to switch racquets. Nadal, who had lined up to serve, had to restart his ritual, but not before staring at Soderling and saying, sarcastically, “New balls.” Soderling stepped backed and tugged at his shorts, mimicking Nadal’s most famous and embarrassing tic and making the crowd laugh. After the match, which Nadal won, the Spaniard said Soderling was going to hell (to be exact: “We will see what’s happening in the end of the life, no?”).
“I don’t know Nadal too well but he’s probably a nice guy,” Soderling says. “In a five-set match, you play maybe 500 points and I had to wait for him 499 times. He has to wait for me one time and he said something. Of course I was frustrated.”
Though the incident confirmed Soderling’s prickly exterior, Bjorkman says it also revealed the man beneath it.
“A lot of guys were happy to see that he stood up against Nadal,” Bjorkman says. “Nadal went out in [the press room] and spoke a lot of s---, and Robin came in after that and said, ‘You know what, if I have a problem with someone I speak to them in person, I don’t go through the media.’ He has a good heart. It’s just hard for him to find the right way sometimes.”
Soderling grew up in Tibro, a village of 10,000 about an hour’s drive from Gothenburg that bills itself as “the furniture centerof Sweden.” Soderling’s mother, Britt-Inge, worked for the city, and his father, Bo, an attorney, was an accomplished table tennis player in his youth. He tried to interest his only son in paddles, but Robin preferred tennis, which his father also played. As a boy, Soderling rode his bicycle to the local club every day after school. “I played with whoever was there,” he says. “Kids my age, grown-ups, 40-, 50-year-old guys, everybody. I stayed there for four or five hours a night.”
Soderling had little idea how good he was until he started to play Swedish junior tournaments at age 11. From the start, he won. He performed well in larger European tournaments, too, and soon found himself at a more advanced tennis academy 30 minutes outside his hometown. He says his parents didn’t pressure him to succeed in tennis, and his sister, now a schoolteacher, wasn’t an athlete. Soderling progressed so quickly that he stopped school at 15 and turned pro at 17. At 18, he qualified for his first major, the 2002 U.S. Open, and won a round. Then not much happened. Over the next six years, Soderling was coached by former touring pro Peter Carlsson, a relationship that refined Soderling’s strokes but did little to help him fit in on the pro tour or blunt his temper. Soderling was liable to lash out no matter the opponent, even against Mr. Gracious himself, Roger Federer. When the two met in Halle in 2005, Federer called for a tournament referee to argue that the chair umpire couldn’t overturn a call based on a mark on a grass court. The two replayed the point and Soderling served an ace. Then he taunted Federer, according to reports.
Carlsson’s approach, Bjorkman says, was, “You’re here to win, not make friends.” Bjorkman describes Soderling as charming with the media in Sweden, but essentially a shy person. The shyness, and the me-against-the-world attitude, were interpreted as aloofness and selfishness, especially in Davis Cup. There Soderling would complain that he’d played like garbage even after he had won.
“He didn’t really understand the team,” Bjorkman says. “For him, it was more about winning and losing as an individual.”
Soderling and Carlsson split after the 2008 U.S. Open and in stepped Magnus Norman, former world No. 2. Bjorkman credits Norman for Soderling’s recent surge. Soderling has fewer outbursts these days, he’s friendlier in the locker room, and he’s calmer on court, where he takes his time and thinks more clearly than he once did.
“He’s more focused now, even if he’s going through a bad moment in a match, he doesn’t let the match slip away,” Norman says. Soderling has learned something else, too, Norman says: “It’s important to make friends with the guys and feel comfortable.”
Norman doesn’t take credit for Soderling’s powerful game, though. He says Carlsson and Ali Ghelem, Soderling’s fitness trainer, deserve the praise. Soderling won’t ever be described as graceful—he almost gallops as he moves to the ball—but his lateral movement is better than it looks. While his forehand is long and stiff, he times it well, even on fast indoor hard courts, where he plays his best tennis. His serve booms loudly and reliably, despite an unusually high toss.
With success comes expectations, and so far Soderling hasn’t had any trouble handling them. After the French Open, he developed a Twitter habit and found that he had a modest fan club (2,200 followers as of January, many from outside of Sweden). Soderling can be amusing, even goofy, when writing to his supporters. After advancing to the U.S. Open quarterfinals, where he would again meet Federer, he wrote, “Having Pizza, coke, and jellybeans for dinner in my bed. I know its not good, but I think I deserve it tonite!!!!!”
At 25, Soderling might have much more to celebrate in years to come. First, he’ll be married to Jenni Mostrom, a Swede who attended Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on a golf scholarship (the two were engaged as of January, but had yet to set a date). Then, if all goes as planned, a major title. As del Potro proved at the U.S. Open last year, the Big Game— really, the Bigger Game—can still succeed these days, despite a string of successes by quicker, more defensive-minded players like Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and, to some degree, Federer.
“Robin understands now that his game is good enough to be there,” Bjorkman says. And not a moment too soon.
Originally published in the March 2010 issue of TENNIS.