Roger Federer finally perspired at Wimbledon yesterday – breaking sweat is for mortals – but his opponent's role in this was largely incidental. Robin Soderling brought an aggressive approach and a booming serve to their Centre Court clash, but not the nerveless composure which has helped Federer claim five Wimbledon singles titles.
With the mercury touching 34C on court, Federer was obliged to mop his brow occasionally, but when it mattered he was ice cool. At every critical juncture Federer was superior to his 24-year-old Swedish opponent.
This was never more apparent than in what proved to be the final set, the third. Having conceded a mini-break, Federer found himself 4-5 down with Soderling, who regularly served above 130mph, standing at the service line with cannon loaded. With his first serve Soderling manoeuvred Federer out of position only to watch and gasp as the Swiss passed him with a stunning, running forehand cross-court. Soderling looked up to the skies, smiled ruefully and shook his head as if to ask, "how do I compete with that?" The bemused 13th seed then double-faulted. There was no such frailty from Federer who ruthlessly put away the first match point to win 6-4, 7-6, 7-6 in a minute under two hours.
"I think I played a very good point," said Soderling. "I hit a great forehand on the line and he came up with that winner. There is not much I can do about that. He won the tie-break, I didn't lose it."
Federer's view was that he won it because of his ability to seize the moment. "I stayed calm and waited for my chance." Federer went on to explain that his calmness was the aspect of his play which he valued most in this fortnight to date. "I'm very pleased at how relaxed I have been on court," he said. "There's been no signs of the panics I maybe had six months ago. I would just feel uneasy. I wouldn't be exactly sure what the right plays were. Now I feel perfect. That's great."
Being on the grass of SW19 helps. "It feels like coming home," said Federer. Not, he confessed, that it was always so. "My first match on Centre Court [in 2001] my mind was spinning, especially as I was playing Pete Sampras," he said.
Federer won but he recalled: "I had cold hands, my pulse was racing, there was this disbelief that I was playing my hero, and also at being on Centre Court. It took a couple of games to get into it, then the mind goes into focus where before there had been so many questions."
These days Federer has the answers, it is his opponents who have all the questions. Soderling insisted that despite his 0-11 record against Federer he had believed he could win. "I never want to go on court thinking I am going to lose," he added. "I think I am getting closer."
What could you beat him at? "I think I will beat him in the marathon, easy," said the big Swede.
Robin v Roger sounded like the type of match which could be played at any Home Counties lawn tennis club but it was actually a repeat of the French Open final earlier this month. Then a nervous Soderling had been blown away in a 23-minute first set 6-1 en route to losing in straight sets. Afterwards he told Federer: "You know you beat me nine times in a row before this match, and we were joking nobody can beat me 10 times in a row. We were wrong. But next time we play ... nobody can beat me 11 times in a row, I promise you!"
Soderling had clearly put some thought into how he could upset Federer. The maestro admitted he had been surprised at Soderling's desire to come to the net. The Swede went for his shots whenever he could, even seeking to hit winning returns off Federer's serve. It was, though, a strategy borne of desperation. Facing Federer across the net does that to players. The five-times champion played more conservatively, often settling for simply keeping the ball in play when returning. But he also played cannily, keeping the ball low and forcing the 6ft 4in Soderling to stoop.
The opening game proved a telling indicator. Soderling, serving powerfully, took the opening three points but was then beaten by a searing forehand winner as Federer seized upon what had seemed a decent drop shot. Soderling had been reminded that he was not playing an ordinary opponent.
The No 2 seed won his own service game to love, including an excellent pick-up volley on a rare foray to the net, and the set went with service until the ninth game. Soderling then made one of 25 unforced errors (to Federer's nine) and gifted the game away. Federer immediately served out and the set was won (or, rather, lost).
To his credit, Soderling quickly put this behind him and when the score ticked up to 4-4 in the second he served far more imperiously, Federer failing to return a brace of opening serves which both reached 130mph. The match moved inexorably to the tie-break, the 10th between the pair. Federer had won eight of the previous nine including the last, in Paris, 7-1.
This one was tighter but Soderling was again the one who cracked under pressure, over-hitting, on serve, on Federer's first set point. That is what playing the Swiss does to opponents. Like any great champion he has an aura about him, created by a combination of achievement and ability.
Soderling stuck at it and worked himself into a set-winning position in the third-set tie-break. There he found again that Federer has an extra gear.
Did nothing worry the favourite? Yes. Asked about the All England Club sending home several ball boys and ball girls who had shown "flu-like" symptoms, Federer looked genuinely concerned.
"It's not good news," he said, "especially for players travelling round the world and meeting so many people. It's obviously not a good thing. Being careful is, I think, very important right now."Reuse content