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Heart Of A Warrior

DEUCE

Soderling© Arne Forsell / BildbyrånRobin Soderling rose to meet expectations last season, becoming Sweden's first player to finish in the Top 10 since 2000.

Robin Soderling is known for his competitive drive and powerful game, but the journey to the top has revealed a new side of Sweden’s lone wolf.

You can tell by the way that Robin Soderling walks that he is a man who knows where he is going: great big strides, arms swinging with purpose and eyes focused dead ahead. And with 195 pounds packed solidly into a 6’4” frame, he is a big-boned Swede built like a lumberjack who crushes the ball like a bare-knuckle bruiser. Robin Soderling definitely plays hardball.

Born between the two great lakes of Sweden in the small town of Tibro, Robin Soderling grew up riding his bicycle to the tennis courts each day. It was here on those chilly bike rides to and from practice that he visualised his dream of becoming a great player.

“We have had a lot of special players in Sweden,” Soderling says. “It helped me to have so many good examples.”

While Soderling paid homage to past Swedish greats, he developed his own plans for greatness. Like a lone wolf he would do it his way, and with a determination as strong as Nordic steel. Fellow Swede and good friend, Johan Brunstrom believes that those early days gave Soderling the confidence for that he is so well known.

“Robin is by far the most competitive person I have ever met in my life”

“In his age group back in Sweden there were three to four guys in the 12 & under and 13 & under that were fighting big time against each other every time they played,” Brunstrom recalls. “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 along the way throughout juniors and on to the pro tour.”

Guiding Robin Soderling through the juniors and into the Top 50 of the South African Airways ATP Rankings was Peter Carlsson, coach of Team Catella.

“Robin lives for his tennis tournaments,” says Carlsson. “He is really committed to being the best. Robin is the kind of guy who will do everything to win a match.”

Robin Soderling’s career could not have gotten off to a better start. At his first event as a professional, an ITF Futures in Sweden, Soderling was the last man standing. He followed that win up with a runner-up finish the very next week.

Soderling“That first tournament win just made him more hungry to win the next week,” recalls Carlsson.

Kalle Flygt played the young Soderling both weeks. “You could see that he had a very big game even at that age,” says Flygt. “His movement then was not strong, but he sure had plenty of other weapons. And he hated to lose.”

Ask anyone who has ever known him and they all say the same thing: Robin Soderling absolutely hates to lose. For he is a natural born warrior, a Viking in the truest sense of the word.

“Robin is by far the most competitive person I have ever met in my life,” says good friend and Davis Cup teammate, Robert Lindstedt. “His desire to win is just incredible.”

Joachim ‘Pim-Pim’ Johansson was with Soderling for many of the early years on Team Catella. Both wanted to be number one on the team and they pushed each other daily. According to Carlsson, “the competition was fierce. And not always healthy”.

“He was very competitive and took his own way,” remembers Johannson. “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 number one.”

There is one word that best describes Robin Soderling’s style of tennis: brutal. Smash mouth tennis at its best. His balls are propelled by a deliberate velocity that explodes off his strings like hellfire missiles. While his serve may not have the easy grace of Richard Krajicek’s or the bullwhip snap of Goran Ivanisevic, it is a bio-mechanically efficient service technique that rocks the court like a thunderbolt. Off the ground, Robin packs heavy artillery. The backhand, solid and dependable, is a clean double-handed forearm press that he can take on the rise while changing direction with a split second snap of the hips. And more than a few players have joked that he could be arrested for carrying a weapon (forehand) onto the court.

“There is one word that best describes Robin Soderling’s style of tennis: brutal”

No doubt Soderling’s game is high risk. And when that forehand is on target, it is good night, Irene. But it is a game that demands precision, or possibly perfection. That is another trait that people attribute to Robin Soderling: perfection. Nobody knows that better than Nate Ferguson, of P1Tennis, who has customised Soderling’s racquets since 2004.

“Robin is definitely a perfectionist,” Ferguson states. “And I respect him for that. When I met him he was doing a lot of tinkering with his grip, wrapping layer after layer of trainers’ tape around the end. I called it the butt cap flare. We talked about it, and the balance of the racquet a lot and Thomas Enqvist joked that trying to please Robin with his racquet was mission impossible. After a lot of going back and forth, we eventually created a special molded grip of hard foam that never changes its dimensions. And a balance that worked. Robin was happy.”

Yet for all his power and attempts at perfection, something was lacking in Soderling’s repertoire. For years he seemed to be stuck in a rut, trapped between 40 and 70 in the rankings. In fairness to Soderling, he did have some serious injuries that required intensive rehab and long periods away from competition. Former ATP World No. 2 Magnus Norman had a good idea what Soderling needed and when he got the call, he answered it like the former champ he is.

Soderling“In the past he was throwing away matches that he should have won. He was affected by the wind, spectators, by things that he could not control,” says Norman. “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. Then the week before the French Open, he came to me and said, ‘Now I understand. I really understand what you mean.’

“Robin is very eager to learn new things,” continues Norman. “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.”

Former World No. 1 Mats Wilander says, “He's quite confident in his own ability and I think that's why he made it to the top of the game. I think he should have been there earlier... Robin is very strong mentally and it took someone who had been there and achieved more than him. Magnus knows what he’s talking about, saying the right thing and coming from the right person.”

Soderling must have learned something from Norman, for he was about to send shockwaves through the tennis world.

“He's quite confident in his own ability and I think that's why he made it to the top of the game”

It is a few hours before the clash of two titans, Rafael Nadal and Robin Soderling in the Round of 16 match at Roland Garros. Soderling has just finished warming up and is ready to go, but  Norman stops him from leaving the court and suggests one more drill. Soderling agrees and one by one, Norman feeds his charge what he loves to eat: inside out forehands.

Like a Gothic beast, Soderling’s black eyes flash with fury as he covers the advantage side of the court with alarming speed and agility for such a large man. Setting his big feet in a semi-open stance, he launches ballistic forehands across the net that explode like bomblets when hitting the court with plumes of red clay spewing up in the air. It is a stroke that looks more like a roundhouse right knock out punch than a part of a game played by gentlemen. Norman is satisfied that Robin is now ready to enter the arena that has been the undisputed throne of the King of Clay, Rafael Nadal.

Thirty-one times in thirty-one contests, the Spaniard has emerged victorious from Roland Garros. There is nothing in the air on this day that would suggest any other outcome. It would go down as a battle of man versus man, a war in the trenches between two heavy hitters. For four punishing sets, they traded blows. In the end it was the challenger, Soderling, who would eventually lift his arms in triumph while the mighty warrior Nadal was hurled to Valhalla.

Soderling“Sweden was so hungry for his success,” says Carlsson. “And Robin delivered.”

Brunstrom agrees. “I think the past one and half years he has improved mentally a lot on the court and has learned to accept that everything can’t be perfect all the time,” he says. “He has really showed that he can dig deep and come out on top in a way he didn’t do before.”

Understanding Robin Soderling the person is not as easy as understanding Robin Soderling the player. As a player there is no doubt that Soderling likes to bang – getting on top of the ball early, driving it down into the court like a hammer and nail – by doing so gaining the advantage of leverage. For his opponents, it is literally fighting an uphill battle.

But how do you figure out a man who once said to the press that he did not join the ATP World Tour to make friends? For starters, according to those who know him best, you have to be patient. Listen to what they have to say about the man ranked No. 7 in the world.

“I practised with him a lot over the years,” says Jarkko Nieminen. “When you know him better, he is more open. I think he has always been extremely talented. And he knew it himself. His own expectations were very high and that was a lot of pressure. He has been on the tour a few years, and maybe now he is more experienced he can handle the pressure. And he is putting all the little pieces together.”

“He does not come to people easily,” says Carlsson. “You have to get to know him. Once you do you can see he is a great guy. We had a really good relationship.”

“Robin is one of my best friends on the tour,” claims Robert Lindstedt. “He is really a nice guy.”

“You have to get to know him. Once you do you can see he is a great guy”

“Robin has a very strong personality,” states Norman.” 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.”

Fernando Verdasco and Robin Soderling are holding their trophies while standing on a raised platform on center court in Barcelona at the end of the ATP World Tour 500 tournament. The finalist Soderling has the microphone in his hand and he begins by thanking the crowd for their enthusiasm and the sponsors for their support. Though they are neck and neck in the South African Airways 2010 ATP Rankings, Soderling praises Verdasco.

“Congratulations, Fernando,” Soderling says. “You played great. And today you deserved to win.”

We have learned that Robin Soderling is a fiery competitor who hates to lose, but just as important we are seeing that Soderling respects how great the level is at the top of the ATP World Tour. In doing so, he exudes even more confidence, for he is man enough to admit it even though he has just gone down in three tough sets to Verdasco.

“He's ready to win a big tournament,” asserts Wilander, a winner of seven Grand Slam titles. “I think he believes he could win a big tournament and I think he's ready to win. He's matured a lot.”

It may have taken Soderling longer than he expected, but there is no doubt that he has finally arrived. And, since Roland Garros last year, he is sitting where he is most comfortable: in the driver’s seat, with one big foot on the gas pedal going full speed ahead. 

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