Soderling shows grit to progress

Swede overcomes illness to sail past Almagro and set up a clash with Federer

They say that form is temporary, and class permanent. But it looks very much as though the long legs of Robin Soderling are now straddling the margin between both.

The man who had the effrontery to ruin Rafael Nadal's immaculate career at Roland Garros, three weeks ago, must admittedly come up with something equally seismic if he is to proceed towards a second successive Grand Slam final. His next opponent is the man who beat him in Paris, Roger Federer, but the one thing Soderling proved yesterday is that he has the stomach for a fight.

The Swede has been suffering from a gastric bug since Wednesday, barely eating in the meantime, and had to summon the doctor after opening a two-set lead on Nicolas Almagro. But he betrayed little of his fatigue in finishing off the job 7-6, 6-4, 6-4.

The fact is that Soderling, who had never survived the third round in 21 Grand Slam tournaments prior to his breakthrough last month, is suddenly showing an unsuspected head for heights. In the past, he would lose his bearings at the slightest pretext. But he has discovered a remarkable composure since taking on Magnus Norman as coach. True, the big man still contributed something to the brooding sense of ennui that seemed to pervade Court Three in the sultry noon. He gazed down at his opponent not just across a net, but a continent – this tall, grim Nordic against a pert, glossy Spaniard, with the build of a matador and the swagger of a lifeguard who does not expect a busy day.

Almagro, 23, had never won consecutive matches on grass until this week, and did so only by staggering through two five-setters. But while he arrived here ranked 48 in the world, he did make it up to No 11 this time last year, only to lose his way after undergoing surgery on his right hand.

And you could soon see how he might belong among this golden generation of Spanish tennis. While Soderling relied on height and power, Almagro disclosed a deft, wristy style and a readiness to improvise. That was not enough, however, to stem the relentless weight and accuracy of his opponent's serve.

As the match began to take shape, Soderling did not drop a single point in five consecutive service games. He did interrupt that sequence during the tie-break, notably when yielding a 1-5 lead with the first of only three double faults in the match; but after salvaging a set point he turned the screw to 9-7.

To his credit, Almagro was very nearly matching Soderling for consistency in the serve, loading extravagant spin into his second serves in the heavy atmosphere. But the Swede prised open a break at 3-3 in the second set, and served out with successive aces. The die seemed cast. Almagro, who had started out grinning at the crowd after moments of misfortune or futile endeavour, had now begun muttering darkly to himself. When Soderling called for his trainer, at the end of the second set, Almagro addressed his crisis by lounging vacantly on his chair, examining his fingernails.

To his credit, he was not oblivious to the increasing lassitude in his opponent, and raised his own game anew. But Soderling dug out a supreme effort in the seventh game, loping up and down the baseline to pull off a backhand on the paint, and consolidated with three aces in his next game. By this stage he was more or less on auto-pilot, but that is the kind of luxury you earn from a run of form like this. He could afford to trust his instincts.

"I felt pretty bad," he said afterwards. "My stomach's been pretty bad since Wednesday, so I didn't eat a lot. I felt OK first set, but then got tired. I didn't really move the way I wanted to, but I played OK anyway – maybe my best match [here] so far."

Having been shaken so brusquely out of his French Open dream, he was succinct when asked what he needs to do better against Federer this time. "Everything," he said. "I've played him 10 times, and after the match I never felt like I played well. But it's not because of me, it's because of him. He makes you play. But our closest matches have been on grass, and indoor courts. So maybe I can get a little bit more from my serve, try to get some shorter points. Maybe that's the advantage of playing on a fast surface."

Before Paris, Soderling had not won more than two consecutive games for eight months. Where once he was volatile, however, he now seems merely remote. And while you still could not say exactly what might be going through his head, when he buries it under a towel at breaks, it does not seem to matter what might be happening to his intestines. In this opponent, at least, Federer will not be able to rely on queasiness.


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