'The man who beat Rafa' is out to repeat his feat of clay

Soderling is forever reminded of famous win as Paris puts a spring in his step
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The Independent Online

It may not come for a while yet, but Robin Soderling is looking forward to the day when nobody mentions the match he played on 31 May 2009. It was, after all, only a fourth-round encounter and he has played 383 other matches as a professional. He has also won five singles titles, appeared in a Grand Slam final and earned more than $6.3m (about £4.4m) in prizemoney.

For the next fortnight, however, the Swede is prepared for a constant flow of reminders about the result which L'Equipe, the Paris-based sports daily newspaper, playing on the French term for clay (terre battue), described as a tremblement de terre, or earthquake.

You would be hard-pressed to come up with a greater shock in the history of men's tennis than Soderling's four-set defeat of Rafael Nadal at last year's French Open. The Swede was regarded as a journeyman, little more than cannon fodder for the game's big guns as they targeted the biggest prizes.

Nadal, attempting to win the Coupe des Mousquetaires for a fifth time, was the world No 1 and apparently unstoppable on Parisian clay, having won all his previous 31 matches at Roland Garros.

To the eyes of a disbelieving world, however, Soderling blasted the Spaniard off the court with his thunderbolt serves and bludgeoning groundstrokes. He went on to reach the final before losing to Roger Federer.

It was a match that may well define the 25-year-old's career, but Soderling has never watched a video of it and says he rarely thinks about it. "You play so many matches and there's always the next one to think about," he said. "You're never better than your last match. Even if you win a tournament, you might go to the next one and lose in the first round."

The rest of the world, however, is less inclined to forget. Soderling admitted: "For a long time afterwards people came up to me and said: 'Well done against Rafa.' It doesn't happen quite so much now, but at the end of last year I was always hearing people say: 'Oh look, that's the guy who beat Nadal.' It got to the point where I really felt that I didn't want to be remembered just as the guy who had beaten Nadal. Today, though, it's different, because I think I've played well for a while now."

Although Soderling insists that he was on an upward curve before he beat Nadal, he admits that the victory gave him the confidence to take his game to another level. Until that point he had been ranked in the world's top 100 for more than six years without ever looking likely to make a major breakthrough. In 21 previous appearances at Grand Slam tournaments, he had never gone beyond the third round.

"I remember when I first broke into the top 100 in the middle of 2003," Soderling recalled. "I wondered whether I would ever be ranked better than that. I said to my coach: 'At least I reached the top 100.' He said: 'I'm sure you're going to do much better.' But it was tough. There are so many good players out there."

In the wake of last year's French Open, Soderling won the title in Bastad, reached the fourth round at Wimbledon and the quarter-finals at the US Open (losing to Federer on both occasions), made the latter stages at a succession of tournaments and rounded off the best year of his career by beating Nadal and Novak Djokovic, then the world Nos 2 and 3 respectively, on his first appearance at the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London. He broke into the world's top 10 and is now at a career-high No 7 in the rankings.

Soderling says he feels no pressure to succeed at this year's French Open, which begins today. "I've played really well at the start of this year and made a lot of ranking points," he says. "Even if I lose in the first round at Roland Garros, I will have made more points than I made last year. I still feel pretty good and it will be nice to go back, especially now that I know I can play well in Paris."

In the wake of Nadal's defeat last year, it emerged that the Spaniard had been suffering knee trouble – he was out of the game for more than two months and was unable to defend his title at Wimbledon – but Soderling had been unaware of his opponent's difficulties. He gives Magnus Norman, his coach, the credit for making him believe that he could dethrone the king of clay.

"Before the match Magnus said that I should imagine seeing the next day's newspapers, that I should picture myself winning," Soderling said. "He told me to believe that I could win."

He sees the rejuvenated Nadal as the favourite at Roland Garros this year, but insists there are "maybe 10 guys in the world who could win". He added: "Of course Rafa's the best in the world on clay and it's not going to be easy to beat him, but nobody can win every match forever, not even Rafa or Roger."

How would Soderling describe his own game? "I think it's solid. I have a pretty good serve, a good forehand, my backhand is pretty solid. Of course there are a lot of things I have to work on, but I don't feel like I have any big weaknesses. If you look at all the top guys, that's how they play. Every aspect of their game is very good.

"I feel pretty much the same as I did a year ago, but I think the big difference is that now I can beat really good players without actually playing my best tennis. If you look at the top players – Roger, Rafa, Murray, whoever – they don't play their best tennis every match. Maybe it's only five times a year that they play their absolute best, although they still play well almost every time and win a lot of matches. I really feel that I've been doing the same for the last year."

Soderling has plenty to live up to given his homeland's tennis heritage, but he says it was an advantage to have been raised in a country accustomed to the success of men like Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg. "When I was growing up there were so many good Swedish players. I loved watching tennis on TV. There was always a Swede doing well in every tournament, so it inspired me a lot."

Borg sends occasional text messages of support and Soderling also has regular contact with Wilander and Thomas Enqvist, who was the Swede he followed most as a boy. Although Soderling has vague memories of Edberg winning his last Wimbledon title in 1990 – he was just five at the time – it was Sweden's Davis Cup victory over the United States in Gothenburg four years later that really fired his imagination.

Soderling has helped to keep Sweden in the Davis Cup's World Group, but it has not been easy. The next highest-ranked Swede in singles is Andreas Vinciguerra at No 280. "When I first started to play on the tour there were so many Swedes," Soderling said. "Travelling around was easier because we all went for dinner and practised together. Now there are just a couple of Swedish doubles players who I hang out with."

Women's draw: Williams sisters stunned to still be top of the tree

As they say in these parts, ' plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose'. Women's tennis can feature an ever-changing cast of characters – few would have expected the Belgian Justine Henin to be one of the favourites to win here again, two years after announcing her retirement – but as the French Open begins today, the Williams sisters bring a rare sense of continuity.

The Americans are back at No 1 and No 2 in the world rankings for the first time in seven years. If they are rarely at their best on clay – Serena beat Venus in their only appearances in the final in Paris in 2002 – the struggles of so many of their rivals are a cause for optimism.

"It's a great feeling," Serena said of the sisters' return to the top of the tree. "We're really excited. We feel like we deserve to be here. We have worked so hard for so many years and we have had so many ups and downs, all kinds of problems.

"People have said we would never be No 1 and No 2 in the world again. Ten years later – I don't know how long it's been – we're still doing the best. It's awesome. It's a great, great, amazing feeling."

While Venus, 29, is still the big sister – she has again claimed the bigger room in their Paris apartment – Serena, 28, has been moving clear of her in recent years. Serena's Australian Open victory was her 12th Grand Slam triumph, five more than Venus, who has not won a major title away from the grass of Wimbledon for nine years.

However, while Serena has been nursing a knee injury since the Australian Open in Melbourne – she has played just twice, reaching the semi-finals in Rome and the last 16 in Madrid – Venus has been enjoying one of her best runs away from the Grand Slam events.

In five tournaments since the Australian Open, where she lost to Li Na in the quarter-finals, Venus has won titles in Dubai and Acapulco, reached the finals in Miami and Madrid and the last eight in Rome. "I feel like I'm playing well," she said. "I feel confident in my game."

The sisters have often been criticised for an apparently casual attitude towards events away from the Grand Slam tournaments, but Serena says they are in a no-win situation. "It's crazy," she said. "It's always something. If you're winning Slams you don't care about the other ones. If you win the other ones, then you can't win Grand Slams.

"I don't really care or listen. It doesn't really matter to me what someone else is saying, because they're not out there physically playing every week for 20-something years. If I choose to do well in the Slams, there's nothing wrong with that, though obviously I would prefer to do well in the Slams and the smaller tournaments."

Paul Newman