Friday, June 5, 2009

One thrilling French Friday

It will be a fitting French Open final. Rafael Nadal’s conqueror versus Nadal’s nemesis. It is only fitting that they should vie for Nadal’s crown.

But Robin Soderling and Roger Federer are even more worthy of their places in Sunday’s final as they both outlasted their opponents to win thru in separate, five-set, semi-final epics on a Friday as good as any ever seen in Paris. Soderling fought back from the brink against Fernando Gonzalez to win 6-3 7-5 5-7 4-6 6-4, while Federer outlasted a gallant Juan Martin Del Potro 2-6 7-6 4-6 6-1 6-4.

The day began with Soderling’s fairytale continuing against Chilean 12th-seed Gonzalez. As far as ground strokes go, Gonzalez has arguably the biggest weapon in the game. His forehand blew Andy Murray off the court in their quarter final, and the match-up between he and Soderling was a mouth-watering prospect for those who prefer the lines on court Phillipe Chatrier dusted by V8 powered Blower-Vac rather than fine-tooth brush.

Soderling picked up where he left off after his systematic dismantling of Nikolay Davydenko in the quarters. He continued to flatten out his ground strokes off both wings and Gonzalez had no answers to the Swede’s consistent power and placement in the opening set.

The Chilean fought fire with fire in the second and conjured a set-point only for Soderling to fizz a bullet serve beyond his reach. Gonzalez deflated by the Swede’s composure lost his serve and without having done much wrong was contemplating a straight-sets defeat.

That contemplation was fast becoming a reality in the third. Soderling’s serve looked impenetrable throughout the opening 11 games. But in the 12th, the Swede stumbled, lost the set, and the momentum shift was both palpable and powerful.

That was until the ninth game of the fourth where it seemed the Chilean lost both the momentum as his cool. Soderling once again was deemed to clean the tram line with a backhand winner. Gonzalez first disputed the line-call with the chair umpire, then the ball mark with the linesman, before wiping the mark with his backside. It was an act of contempt that will undoubtedly land him in hot-water with French Open officials however given the extraordinary amount of emotional energy he wasted in his rant it seemed impossible that he could hold serve. Not only did he hold, he thrived, breaking Soderling immediately thereafter to send the match into a deciding fifth.

It looked over when Soderling was broken for a second-successive time. The Swede had completely lost his radar, and his fearless shot-making had been replaced by uncertainty and Gonzalez kept retrieving and counterpunching. He trailed 4-1 and the fairytale looked over, but he found something extra. His radar returned and he overpowered the Chilean with a phenomenal final thrust. The 24-year-old Swede won the last five games to progress to the final. For a man who prior to this week had never progressed to the fourth round of a Grand Slam it is an extraordinary achievement.

His opponent for Sunday was decided not in a race to the finish but rather by a war of attrition. Roger Federer needed every bit of his 13-Grand Slam wins worth of experience to overcome a 20-year-old Argentinean whose future looks grand. Del Potro has been one of the form players of the tournament and of the clay court season. He has dropped just one set the in tournament, and his place in the world’s top five is now undisputed but he will have to wait some time for an opportunity to win his first Grand-Slam title.

It didn’t look that way for much of the early stages of the day’s second semi. Del Potro, after having to save break points in his opening two service games suddenly flicked a switch and dominated the remainder of the opening set. Federer looked flustered and frustrated as he struggled with his timing and balance. But he was unfazed as he had come from behind in three of his five matches at this tournament.

Del Potro’s serve was impenetrable, and Federer was constantly under pressure on his. But once they reached the second set tie-break Federer assumed control.

But again it was a false dawn. Del Potro broke once more in the third set and the Argentinean, whom most expected to fold under the pressure against one of the world’s greatest, was suddenly looking like the winner.

Federer virtually conceded the third set before producing a trademark response in the fourth. He scraps as well as anyone. But unlike the great scrappers in Lleyton Hewitt and Nadal, Federer scraps as only he can, patiently and elegantly. He outlasted Del Potro in two interminable service games and strolled to the fifth as an overwhelming favourite.

But there was another twist. Federer broke as quickly as Del Potro broke back. Or more accurately Federer broke as slowly as Del Potro broke back. It all happened in a manner of games but those games lasted a life-time. It was last man standing tennis. And Federer was the last man standing. He eventually broke again. Ironically it came via a double-fault from the Argentinean.

Federer held his nerve, and his quest for that elusive Musketeers Cup is still alive.

He goes into Sunday’s final as a definitive favourite. He has a 9-0 record against Soderling, and the Swede had never reached the fourth round of Grand Slam prior to this week let alone a final, while Federer has made the last 20 Grand Slam semi-finals and the last four French Open finals.

Should the Swiss maestro prevail Sunday he will join Pete Sampras as the only players in history to have claimed 14 Grand Slam titles, and he will join Andre Agassi as the only other of six players to have won the career Grand Slam on three different surfaces.

There will be those who will post an asterisk next to his name, arguing he did not beat Nadal. But you can only beat who is front of you, and Soderling’s form has been simply phenomenal.

Soderling is the first Swede to reach the final since his coach Magnus Norman in 2000, and will be the looking to become the first Swede to win since Mats Wilander won for the third time in 1988.

It promises to be a classic.

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