Until 10 days ago Robin Soderling was little more than cannon-fodder for the big guns, but tomorrow the 24-year-old Swede will have the chance to fire himself into the game's history books when he plays here in the final of the French Open.
Soderling had never gone beyond the third round in any of his previous 21 appearances at a Grand Slam tournament but continued his extraordinary run yesterday when he beat Fernando Gonzalez 6-3, 7-5, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4. He will now play the winner of last night's second semi-final between Roger Federer and Juan Martin del Potro.
After producing one of the most extraordinary upsets in sporting history by beating Rafael Nadal in the fourth round last weekend, Soderling might have been expected to crumble under the weight of expectation in his subsequent matches but the world No 25 has proved over the last week that he has the nerve to match the giant serve and booming ground strokes that have floored a succession of opponents. Gonzalez, the world No 12, was Soderling's fourth higher-ranked victim in succession after Nadal (world No 1), Nikolay Davydenko (No 11) and David Ferrer (No 14).
''It's been hard, but not as hard as I thought it would be,'' Soderling said last night. ''I won a great match against Nadal. I had maybe the biggest challenge in tennis to beat Nadal here on clay in Paris, but I felt like I wasn't finished with the tournament. I wanted more - and I still feel that way."
Bjorn Borg, who had sent Soderling a text message to thank him for stopping Nadal's attempt to break his record of four successive victories here, was in the crowd as his compatriot became the seventh Swede to reach the French Open final. Sven Davidson, Borg and Mats Wilander all went on to win the title, but the recent demise of Swedish tennis is such that Soderling was the only man from his country in the singles draw.
Although he won all three of his matches at the World Team Cup in Dusseldorf before coming here, there had been little indication that Soderling was capable of joining such elite company. In the previous eight months ago he had not won more than two matches in a row at any tournament.
Gonzalez, who had won his four previous matches against the Swede and was aiming to reach his second Grand Slam final after losing to Federer in Australia in 2007, had dropped only one set in his first five matches here. For two sets, however, the Chilean was a pale imitation of the lion who had hunted down Andy Murray in the quarter-finals. His forehand, which Murray described as the biggest shot in tennis, misfired and he was soon hitting it with more loop than he had against the Scot, giving Soderling a much better chance of getting to the ball.
Soderling, meanwhile, was striking out with all the freedom he had shown in the three previous rounds. The Swede won four games in a row on his way to the first set and served out for the second after breaking in the 11th game.
Gonzalez appeared to be heading for an early exit but hung on in the third and fourth sets, taking both after converting his only break points. At 4-4 in the fourth he was subjected to whistles and jeers from the crowd after disputing a line call. When the umpire refused to overrule the line judge's verdict after examining the mark, Gonzalez sat down on the court and erased it with his backside.
The tide seemed to have turned when Gonzalez, who had won a match from two-sets down on five previous occasions, took a 4-1 lead in the decider, but Soderling dug deep and broke back courtesy of two superb service returns. At 4-4 the Swede broke again thanks to another backhand return hammered down the line. Soderling closed out the match in characteristic fashion after three hours and 28 minutes on his first match point, sinking to his knees after thumping a big forehand winner past a disconsolate Gonzalez.
An abrasive character on court who upset Nadal at Wimbledon two years ago with his impersonations of the Spaniard picking at his shorts, Soderling has not been the most popular player in the locker room. ''He's the one guy who never says hello,'' Gilles Simon said.
Magnus Norman, a fellow Swede and a beaten finalist here nine years ago, took over as Soderling's coach at the start of the year. He said of his new charge's reputation: ''It's justified. But he's been the biggest victim of his own attitude on the court. How many defeats have been his own fault? My job is to make him understand that this is a waste and it has to finish. And I'm not afraid to say that a new Robin was born in his third-round match against Ferrer.''
The only three titles Soderling has ever won – in Lyons in 2004 and 2008 and in Milan in 2005 – were on indoor carpets. He has never won a clay-court title, but joins a long list of unlikely finalists here. In the last 10 years the tournament has been won by Gaston Gaudio (world No 44) and Albert Costa (No 22), while Andrei Medvedev (No 100), Martin Verkerk (No 46) and Mariano Puerta (No 37) have all reached the final. Soderling will be in the world's top 10 if he wins the title. Given his performances over the last fortnight that would be no great surprise.