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RG: History vs . . . Le Sod?
Posted 06/03/2009 @ 8 :42 PM
We’ve reached the end of the long, dusty, sometimes bumpy, often slippery highway known as the European clay-court season. There have been fabulous sights along the roadside—Nadal-Djokovic in Monte Carlo and Madrid stood out as shining peaks of will and athleticism; we’ll put the snapshots on our Facebook pages—as well as a couple of bizarre and eye-opening locations, like Soderling-Nadal, that didn’t appear on the map. Most surprising of all, however, and something we’ll need to discuss once this trip is over, is how three of the vaunted Big 4 ran out of gas before the finish line.
For now, let’s concentrate on who’s still in the race. Of the eight players left in Paris, there's a little of the familiar—Roger Federer has reached his fifth straight semi at Roland Garros; Dinara Safina and Svetlana Kuznetsova will try to improve on past runner-up finishes—and a lot of the foreign. Did anyone on this planet have Cibulkova, Stosur, or Soderling in their brackets? If you had all three, then you know too much about tennis and need to find a hobby; look into curing cancer for us.
What does this mean for the four semifinals to be played Thursday and Friday? Unpredictability is the first word that comes to mind. We’ll see new faces coping with new situations, and last year’s underdogs, Federer and Safina, will find themselves the favorites this time around. But nothing is so unpredictable that we can’t make a stab at predicting it, right? It just means there’s a higher chance of me being wrong, which, if you’re anything like I am when I read other sportswriters, is what you want to happen in the first place. It’s such a bore when they get it right.
It’s a little late to make the women forecasts—they go on court about 11 hours from now—so I’ll stick with the guys today and get back to the WTA on Friday.
Robin Soderling vs. Fernando Gonzalez
Judging from the way these guys have played over the last couple of rounds, this could be the most vicious slugfest in the sport’s history—it will at least have the most elaborate wind-ups. I feel sorry for the ball, as well for anyone or anything, ball kids, linespeople, the net, that has to be on court with these two guys.
Gonzo owns a 4-3 record over Le Sod and has won their last four encounters, two of which came on clay. But they haven’t faced each other in two years, and you get the sense from their past scorelines that Soderling, while he’s the less-accomplished player, has held his own most of the time.
In this dynamic, that means he’s been able to stand toe to toe with Gonzalez and make his mark with his own long-swinging belts at the ball. They can both win points, and will need to win points, with their serves. They can each light up a forehand, but where Gonzo uses his once-handed backhand primarily as a rally shot, Soderling can be consistently offensive, both from the baseline and off returns of serve, with his two-hander. Gonzalez is the faster player and better athlete. The Chilean is also more comfortable on clay, though the Swede defended and slid surprisingly well in beating Nadal.
This one will be decided by Soderling. Is there more to this tall man's Cinderella story? Will he continue to live in his zone of unconsciousness, where the balls that used to fly away now land exactly where he wants them? Can he keep walking that magical and infinitesimal line between hitting as hard as you can and overhitting? I think he can. I don’t think Soderling's race is run quite yet.
Juan Martin del Potro vs. Roger Federer
The five-set, one-good-inside-out-forehand escape against Tommy Haas will help Federer. It worked that way when he won a five-setter over Andreev at the U.S. Open last year, and it very nearly worked again when he came back from two sets down to beat Berdych in Melbourne. It will lessen his anxiety if he gets behind and make him feel, somehow, that the worst is behind him. He played a much cleaner, looser, unhurried, and assured match against Monfils today. Rarely has Federer transferred his elegantly forceful all-court game so completely to clay. It helped that Monfils, while a dangerous bomb-thrower from afar, is hardly the bullying type. He allowed Federer free rein to create, especially on the key points in the first set tiebreaker. And you know what happens when Federer has free rein.
As I wrote over at ESPN on Wednesday, Roger Federer’s insurance policy right now is “Roger Federer.” If you’re trying to close out a three-of-five-setter against him, you’re not just trying to beat a player, you’re trying to beat a name. It may be an unremarkable name to you and I, possibly the product of a garbled mispronunciation by an ancient stammerer in his family—why isn’t is just “Feder”?; why not go all the way and make it “Federererer”?—but it spells doom for his opponents at the majors. The thought of ending Federer's run here, and his streak of 20 straight Slam semis, is a lot of weight to carry around a tennis court, and three sets is a long time to think about it. You could see Haas buckle under that weight when he double-faulted at 4-4 in the third set of their fourth rounder.
No one has been more obviously spooked by Federer's reputation than del Potro, who lost an embarrassing two-bagel semi to him in Australia. But the long and lean Argentine has taken his career one step upward at a time—he’s beaten Nadal and Murray for the first time in 2009—and will be better prepared for the same stage in Paris. I’ve been impressed by the way he’s carried himself through this event. No panic, no frustration, no ups and downs. He’s stalked the courts patiently and come up with big serves when he’s needed them. Unlike Monfils, I have to believe that del Potro will try to impose his will as soon as he gets a chance and not let Federer run free; he should be able to hurry him in rallies. A lot of it may come down to del Potro’s return—he anticipates well—and whether he can trouble Federer in his service games and make the match a scrappier, more up and down affair than Sire Jacket would like it to be. I’ll give him a set.
Final: If it’s Le Sod vs. Roget, the Swede will need to do his best to take control of the rallies ASAP, the way he did with Nadal. I’d give him a shot, as you should all Cinderellas, of staying unconscious for three more sets. But while he’ll go into the match with nothing to lose, if he gets ahead, he’ll suddenly find himself with very much to lose. In the end, Federer couldn’t ask for a better opponent. He’s 9-0 against Soderling and hasn’t dropped even a set to him since 2005 (he’s 12-1 against Gonzalez).
The opportunity to finally win the French and claim the Goat mantle once and for all will put pressure on Federer and motivate him in equal measures. He’s always been a strong closer at Slams, and he’ll have to feel relieved and freed up a bit not having to face Rafa. Plus, there’s the obnoxiously partisan Parisian crowd, which will make either Soderling or Gonzalez feel like they’re facing into the gale-force winds of tennis history and committing a criminal act by trying to fight it. I’d advise both of them to keep their heads down. If they look up past the audience and to the heavens for help, they may catch a glimpse of the scoreboard, with its bright flashing letters spelling out the two words they don't want to see: Roger Federer.
the recipe is simple yet but extremely rare:buckets of athletic ability coupled with gallons of mental tenacity are the core ingredients that produce a Tiger Woods,a Michael Jordan...a Roger Federer
roger is the best