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Soderling Finds The X-Factor

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Robin Soderling© Getty ImagesRobin Soderling won his first ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title on the eve of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals.

He always had the brutal groundstrokes and thunderous serve. Now that Robin Soderling has the mental toughness, he’ll be hard to stop at this year’s tournament.

The first thing you notice about Robin Soderling is his sheer power. Those who saw the Swede in action at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals last year, when he reached the semi-finals, will remember how his brutal groundstrokes had opponents constantly scrambling back in defence.

“Aggressive. That’s the way I like to play,” says the 26 year old. “I like to hit hard and make my opponents run. When that’s working, I always get my best results.”

It’s certainly been working throughout this year. Back in February he won the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament in Rotterdam. He also reached the quarter-finals at both Wimbledon and the US Open, and advanced to the Roland Garros final for a second straight year. But it was on the eve of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals that he posted his finest result of the season, winning his first ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title at the BNP Paribas Masters. Surely it’s only a matter of time before he gets a Grand Slam title under his belt?

“Soderling has improved a lot of things in his game,” says Bjorn Borg, another Swede who knows a thing of two about success in the majors. “He’s ready to win a Grand Slam tournament. He’s always going to be one of the favourites to win.”

“Every match you play could be like a Grand Slam final. I will have to be ready from the first match.”

Along with Stefan Edberg, Mats Wilander and Thomas Enqvist, Borg is one of the Swedish legends whose shoes Soderling is trying hard to fill. “I had a few idols when I was younger, especially all the Swedish guys,” Soderling remembers. “There were so many when I grew up. There was always someone to watch and always someone who played well. They inspired me a lot.”

Soderling was born and grew up in the small town of Tibro, which lies between Sweden’s two big lakes Vattern and Vanern, in the south of the country. His father Bo is a lawyer, his mother Britt-Inge a housewife, and his older sister Sandra a teacher. Soderling first took up tennis at the age of five. He remembers cycling to and from his local tennis courts, even during the harsh winters.

His childhood friend, the current Swedish doubles specialist Johan Brunstrom, recalls how, even as a youngster, Soderling used to fight really hard on the court. “In his age group there were three or four guys who were fighting big time against each other every time they played,” he says. “Robin came out on top of these battles most of the time. I think that created a big confidence from an early stage which helped a lot throughout juniors and on to the pro tour.”

Another Swedish player who remembers how strong Soderling was as a youngster is former Top 10 player, Joachim Johansson. “He was very competitive and took his own way,” he says. “Robin does not fear anyone. This is a strength that he has had all his life. Even when he was 10 and 12 years old, he always had the feeling that he could be No. 1.”

But Soderling has had to work very hard to harness his power game. His coach, former World No. 2 Magnus Norman, reveals how together they have improved Soderling’s mental game.

Soderling“In the past he was throwing away matches that he should have won,” he says. “He was affected by the wind, spectators, by things that he could not control. What I was trying to do when I took over was to change his mentality, make it a strength.

“But in the beginning we had a rough time together. We were talking a lot, spending a lot of time together. I am sure he was sick of hearing my voice. But Soderling is very eager to learn new things, and he is an analyst. Sometimes he comes back to me and says: ‘I don’t really agree with you. Tell me why you think that?’ Then we discuss it more and more until we both agree on a plan.”

Soderling hasn’t always been the most popular player on the circuit. He once even admitted he didn’t join the ATP World Tour to make new friends. His coach is well aware that sometimes his protégé’s character can appear as hard as his groundstrokes. “Robin has a very strong personality,” he says. “You have to develop a feeling when to approach him. But he is more open now than in the past. Expectations have changed a lot. Very interesting to see how he handles the pressure.”

And there will certainly be a huge amount of pressure here at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. Last year, on his debut at the season finale, he narrowly lost in the semi-finals to Juan Martin del Potro, in a third set tie-break.

“Hopefully I can take that experience and do even better this time,” Soderling says positively. “There are only eight players, and you play against the world’s best, so every match you play could be like a Grand Slam final. I will have to be ready from the first match.”

Story reproduced with permission from the official Barclays ATP World Tour Finals tournament program. Order your copy online: http://merchandise.theo2.co.uk/

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