Roger Federer used to love the sight of Robin Soderling. From Miami to Madrid, from Toronto to Thailand, the results between the Swiss and the Swede were always the same. Federer beat him 12 times in a row, winning 28 of the 30 sets they played.
This year's French Open might have changed all that. Federer had won when they met in the final at Roland Garros 12 months earlier, but on a cold and damp Parisian afternoon he had no answer to Soderling's thunderous serve and crushing ground strokes. The quarter-final defeat ended Federer's record sequence of 23 consecutive appearances in Grand Slam semi-finals and started a five-week spell in which the Swiss lost both his world No 1 ranking and his French Open and Wimbledon titles.
Today Federer and Soderling meet again here in the quarter-finals of the US Open. The fast conditions will be back in Federer's favour – the Swiss won in four sets when they met at the same stage last year – but the five-times champion of New York will be taking nothing for granted in their first meeting since Paris.
Soderling has not looked back since last year's French Open, when, as the unheralded world No 25, he became the first player to beat Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros and reached his first Grand Slam final. His consistent progress ever since is such that he will supplant Andy Murray at No 4 in the world rankings if he wins today.
There was a time when Soderling was regarded in the locker room as one of the less friendly faces on the tour – he even managed to upset Nadal at Wimbledon three years ago by mimicking the way the Spaniard tugs at his shorts – but his improved performances have brought confidence and maturity.
"Maybe he's more calm on the court now," Federer said after booking his latest meeting with Soderling by beating Jürgen Melzer 6-3, 7-6, 6-3 on Monday night. "Maybe he doesn't see all the other opponents as enemies. Maybe he realises that the tour is not that bad as it once was. I don't think he was enjoying it as much a few years ago. Who knows, maybe his girlfriend also calmed him down.
"Little things can have a huge impact. Just growing up, too. It took me a long time to figure out that staying calm was going to be better for my game than not. I only realised that when I was about 20 years old. Sometimes that's a long time coming."
Federer, who has won 45 of his last 46 matches here, said the key to beating Soderling was to read his serve and keep him on the run. At 6ft 4in tall and weighing nearly 14st, the Swede is not the quickest of movers around the court.
"I don't think there's any real hidden secrets for either of us," Federer said. "He's been able to string together a few good years now on the tour. He was very good before, but a bit up and down. Maybe that's why his ranking was a bit lower."
Soderling agreed that there was little the two men did not know about each other's game. "I've played him so many times," he said. "I know his game and he knows mine. I'm pretty sure how I need to play to have a chance to win, but it's going to be extremely difficult."
The Swede will prepare the same as he does for every match, though he said that facing Federer here again would be special. "It's matches like that you train for," he said. "It's matches like that I've been dreaming of playing since I started playing tennis."
Soderling was taken to five sets in his first match here by Andreas Haider-Maurer, the world No 214, and also had to come from behind in the fourth round against Spain's Albert Montanes before winning 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3. Federer, in contrast, has yet to lose a set here.
It is hard to escape Federer's face around New York these days – he is even pictured on the side of the official tournament cars –though he still has some way to go before he matches the fame (or earnings) of Alex Rodriguez, the baseball player he met after beating Melzer. "A-Rod" is paid $33m ( £21.6m) a year by the New York Yankees, which is more than half what Federer has earned in his entire career.
Did they compare notes in terms of being recognised around New York? "I didn't ask him if he can still walk the streets," Federer said. "That's like a journalist's question. I'm not a journalist. It's just nice to meet another great athlete. I've never been to a baseball game, so that's something on the 'to do' list for me. Surprisingly enough, he invited me. My schedule is busy, so we'll see if I can make it or not."Reuse content