Wednesday June 2nd, 2010

PARIS -- For five years, the world has been waiting for it to come into focus, the face of the man who could break the stranglehold No. 1 Roger Federer and No. 2 Rafael Nadal have on the men's game. It almost looked like Novak Djokovic for a while, then Juan Martin del Potro, then Andy Murray, but always the picture went blurry again.

Mark the time: On Tuesday, at 7:41 p.m. Paris time, the face became clear at last. It held no shock and no joy. Robin Soderling advanced to the net on Court Philippe Chatrier with fist held high, loping forward to shake hands with the now-beaten Federer -- defending champion at the 2010 French Open, greatest player ever, the man who before this day had beaten him 12 times straight. Thousands stood hollering, trying to digest the 3-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 upset. Soderling didn't seem to hear.

"I play for myself and I play for the win," he would say later. "Not for the crowd."

He stared up into the stands at his coach, Magnus Norman, cocking an eyebrow that can only be interpreted as "See? Told you I would do it." His lip curled into a snarl. Soderling punched the air, then pounded his chest. It was a picture of grim satisfaction, of a thief sure he had taken what was rightfully his.

This was a different player than the one who had seemed, like so many others, almost honored to lose when Federer took the Roland Garros title with a straight-sets coronation a year ago. Soderling had been the one to end Nadal's undefeated streak at the '09 French Open, but he looked delighted just to reach a Grand Slam final then, to be merely a helpmate to history. But on Tuesday nothing -- not the two rain delays, not a crowd that, desperate for another Federer-Nadal final, booed and whistled each time he questioned a call, and certainly not Federer's elegant all-court game -- proved big enough to intimidate him.

The fifth-seeded, 26-year-old Soderling took the quarterfinal match to Federer from the start: Hitting every possible ball early, aiming for the lines, attacking with a forehand as flat and unrelenting as a sledgehammer until Federer cracked. "I'm not going to be mad at Soderling for ousting the No. 1 seed two years in a row when he has a spectacular game and he's going for winners all the time," said French Open tournament director Gilbert Ysern. "He's obsessed with going for winners." That was the remarkable thing about the day: Federer didn't play badly and lose. He was flat-out beaten.

Not that he would admit as much. As has been the case since he won the French Open last year, Federer left Roland Garros after the loss without betraying a hint of heartbreak, supremely secure with his place in history. Yes, Soderling had halted his astounding streak of Grand Slam semifinal appearances stopped at 23 and, yes, Federer knows that his chance of matching Pete Sampras' record of 286 weeks at No. 1 will be gone if Nadal wins this year's title. But Federer has won every title ever dreamed of, and those are mere numbers.

"They all come to an end at some stage," he said, almost shrugging. "It was a great run. Now I've got the quarterfinal streak going, I guess."

As for Soderling's performance, well, Federer took the same stance he did in losing to del Potro at the 2009 U.S. Open: It hurts, but only a little. He grudgingly gave Soderling credit afterward ("He came up with some great tennis") but dwelled more on the damp conditions, his difficulty on clay when everything is not perfect.

"I mean, I respect everyone," he said. "But I'm always -- how do you say? -- I'm honest enough to myself that I know I can win them all."

For his entire reign, of course, that sense of royal privilege has been a weapon in its own right for Federer, and denting it has been a problem for opponents taken with his elegant talent and seeming lack of edge. Nadal, meanwhile, has been a bullying on-court presence, and until Soderling stood up to him last year seemed invincible on clay. The Swede has long had a flinty, taciturn manner, cool to opponents in both the lockerroom ("With him?" Federer said Sunday, when asked if he tried out his rudimentary Swedish with Soderling. "Not so much.") and interview room, but with that win showed how disdain can have its upside.

"Somebody has to show the way," said fellow Swede and seven-time Grand Slam champion Mats Wilander. "Soderling last year showed the way to beat Nadal: Mentally you have to be on the same level and then you have to be stronger than Nadal. After he did that, Nadal had a horrible year because of personal things, of course, but also the other guys were like, 'Wait a minute, if he plays like that, we should all try to play like that.'"

By employing a similarly flat, penetrating forehand for his kill-shot, del Potro became the first man to beat both Nadal and Federer in a Grand Slam last year in New York -- and brought the picture into sharper focus: Anyone wanting to compete with both would have to play an extremely physical, high-risk game, hoping with haymakers to make their knees buckle. The fact that del Potro has been out all year recovering from wrist surgery proves the risk of such an approach, and no one knows, of course, if Soderling's body will prove durable enough to let him to consistently challenge for the top ranking.

But mentally, his development has been unmistakable. Soderling finished last year at a career-high No. 8, made progress on the U.S. hard courts this spring, and three early exits in walk-up tournaments belied his growing self-belief coming into Roland Garros. He then dropped only one set en route to his rematch with Federer, with an utterly transformed mentality. After all, he knew that his dozen losses to the man were speckled with tie-breaks and 12-game sets; only one qualified as a blowout.

"The biggest improvement on the men's tour in the last two years," Wilander said, "is Robin Soderling's head."

On Tuesday evening, Soderling took everything Federer could throw at him (including one mind-boggling get with Soderling serving at 4-5, 30-40 in the third set), ignored one 76-minute rain delay and one horrible overrule on set-point in the fourth -- and just kept pounding. With each winning point, his wolfish disregard for the weather, the crowd and Federer's stature provided another roadmap for the rest of the tour: Growl, question, bite if necessary. But don't ever be intimidated.

"You have to take it to them," Wilander said. "What Soderling does better than so far anyone else on tour -- apart from Nadal -- against Federer is that he doesn't waver mentally. He might get nervous and choke or whatever, but he's right there. The crowd was getting on his case a little bit, maybe a bit unjust, but he's showing that he's not afraid of Federer or Nadal or the moment, which I think is refreshing. After all the years of, I think, players applauding Roger Federer's great shots and big finals, it's nice to see a guy who thinks he works harder than these guys and (thinks), 'I deserve it more than they do.'"

Now Soderling is the first man since Wilander in 1984-85 to beat consecutive defending champions at Roland Garros, and only a semifinal showdown with Tomas Berdych stands in the way of a possible final against Nadal. That's not the rematch most were hoping for in Paris, but it would test yet again the proposition that someone new has gotten into the heads of Federer and Nadal.

"Finally," Wilander said. "Thank God."

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