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Tennis

Soderling, only man to beat Nadal at French Open, ponders return

Photo: Bob Martin/SI

Robin Söderling (right) beat Rafael Nadal (in pink) in four sets in round four of the 2009 French Open.

PARIS -- It's early summer, which means that the mackerel are biting in the bays of Scandinavia. A 29-year-old living in downtown Stockholm has made a habit of going out on the water to see what he can catch. He brings his bounty home, smokes it and then eats it with his family.

Don't misunderstand: Fishing is great fun, but Robin Söderling would much rather be playing tennis. A concussive ball striker with a noirish demeanor, Söderling was in situ among the best in the sport for a half decade. Ranked as high as No. 4, he won 10 titles and $10.4 million. Today, anyway, he is known as the only carbon-based lifeform to beat Rafael Nadal at the French Open. This year marks the five-year anniversary of the match; Söderling won the fourth-round encounter in four sets -- one of the titanic upsets in tennis history. It still top-lines Söderling's career.

He hopes that changes, and not because he wants to see Nadal lose. Söderling wants to return to tennis.

"I haven't retired," he said, multiple times, while speaking by phone from Stockholm on Wednesday. "My dream is to come back and give it a try and hopefully one day be on court again."

Three years ago at Wimbledon, Söderling felt sick. His throat hurt. His stomach didn't feel right. He had little energy. He lost to Bernard Tomic in straight sets in the third round. But then his health improved, and the week after Wimbledon, he won the Swedish Open without dropping a set. He was fifth in the world. And then, he says, the sickness he felt at Wimbledon came back in a fierce way. The diagnosis was mono. He withdrew from the 2011 U.S. Open, then the fall events, then the entire 2012 season. He hasn't played since.

Photo: Glyn Kirk/Getty Images

Robin Söderling lost in the third round of Wimbledon in 2011, played one more event that year and has been absent ever since.

The past few months, though, his health has improved. He weighs two pounds fewer than he did at the time of his last match. (The ATP Tour listed Söderling at 6-foot-4, 192 pounds.) He's been playing tennis again, mostly hitting at an indoor club, slowly easing back. If he pushes too hard, he spends the next day recovering. But he doesn't have the flu-like symptoms anymore. It's a balancing act, trying to kick-start a comeback without pushing too hard. In this case, the sports cliché rings true: "It's really one day at a time," he said.

As Söderling's health has gotten better, he's been doing something he couldn't bring himself to do for the first 18 months of his absence: follow the sport. He's been watching the French Open, and he has many of the same observations you do. The quality of play has been high. It's nice to see some new players make their move. The best players leaven power with control. He's also happy to reflect on that day in Paris.

"I was satisfied with the way I played [against Nadal]," Söderling said. "It was even better to reach the final. And then again the year after. A lot of players can play one match really well. But to reach the final two years in a row, that's what I'm most proud of."

Söderling's absence has provided portals for self-discovery. He has enjoyed being a husband and father -- his daughter, Olivia, is almost 2 -- though he's considered moving to a home where he can have a yard. (Söderling grew up in a small Swedish village four hours from Stockholm.) He is the director of the Stockholm Open, a small event in October.

"As a player, I'd always seen tournaments from the player perspective," Söderling says. "Now I see them from the organizational perspective."

He also acted on what he calls a longtime interest in fabrics and materials, and designed a new tennis ball.

"Someone asked, 'What is the best ball?' I couldn't come up with an answer, so I tried to develop my own ball, as a fun project, nothing serious," Söderling says.

He hooked up with a factory in Thailand and now the RS All Court -- the first tennis ball developed by a professional player -- might be coming soon to your pro shop.

But it's clear what Söderling really wants. For all the former players who are coy and vague about coming back, Söderling is, characteristically, blunt.

"I've been playing tennis -- it's been a part of my life -- since I was 4, so it's been tough to go without," he said. "I look at Tommy Haas, who is in the top [20] and is 36 years old, and it makes feel more positive. You know one of the reasons I want to play? I want to quit on my own terms. I want to quit when I feel it's enough. Right now, it's not enough."

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