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TENNIS

Federer and Soderling advance to French Open final

Both players struggle a bit in their semifinal matches but prevail. It will be Federer's fourth French Open final; Soderling, No. 25 in the world, has never been in a Grand Slam final.

June 06, 2009|Chuck Culpepper

PARIS — Weird sensations might temporarily flummox one Swiss and one Swede on a momentous Sunday at Roland Garros.

Roger Federer will stride out to his fourth consecutive French Open final bizarrely unaccompanied by Rafael Nadal. He might briefly wonder just who is that other guy, or why Nadal buzz-cut his considerable hair and then dyed it light-brown.

Asked if he might miss the Spanish tormentor who beat Federer the last four years and in the last three finals and in a profound 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 demolition in 2008, Federer said, in French, "Not really. Maybe for you you're going to miss him, but not me."

Robin Soderling might walk onto Court Philippe Chatrier thinking, "Wow, we're outdoors!" The unforeseeable finalist has won three ATP Tour titles and reached nine finals, all in coliseums with roofs.

"If you'd asked me a couple years ago which Grand Slam I'd play final in 2009, I wouldn't have said Roland Garros," he said.

Yet here stands he, age 24, ranked No. 25, the only Swede in the top 100, never past the third round in any of his 21 previous Grand Slams, at a tennis-historic juncture. As the first person to beat Nadal at a French Open -- note: it's true; records do show it occurred last Sunday -- he seeks the second-biggest upset of the tournament.

Having suddenly bounced four of the world's top 14 players, including No. 1, Soderling can stem the mighty wishes of a fifth and foil Federer's push to win the only Grand Slam title that still teases him, tie Pete Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slam titles and become only the sixth man with the full Grand Slam china set, following Fred Perry, Don Budge, Roy Emerson, Rod Laver and Andre Agassi.

It's surreal for a guy who began this tournament playing Kevin Kim of the United States either on Court No. 6 or Court No. 7, he can't remember which. "There were a few [witnesses]," Soderling said. "My coach, my girlfriend."

Fortunately for him, this Soderling doesn't resemble the Soderling with the 0-9 lifetime record against Federer, including last year at Wimbledon in the second round after which Federer did win in straight sets and did say, "He's got the potential to be a good player," and, "You know, he has huge shots."

This particular Soderling positively bullied Nadal in the fourth round, routed Nikolay Davydenko and stormed from 1-4, 15-30 in the fifth set to shoo Fernando Gonzalez in the semifinals. This particular Soderling not only makes audiences coo with his blasted forehands and pace-dictating aggression, but slams a lid on the personal volcanoes that used to wreck him and make Swedish fans largely dismiss him.

"It's really, really good to see he's able to calm himself down, by himself," Mats Wilander said, crediting Soderling's coach, Magnus Norman, the last Swede in a Grand Slam final (2000 French Open) after the fade of the Swedish tennis dynasty of Borg, Wilander, Edberg et al.

With the old powerhouse country freshly enthused by tennis because of Soderling, the brave new Soderling will play the grand old Federer, who has lost six sets but has wriggled through despite flashing-light danger against Tommy Haas and Juan Martin Del Potro.

Gonzalez says he thinks Federer's elegant ability to change speeds might prove pivotal against Soderling's heat. Anders Jarryd, the Swedish 1985 Wimbledon semifinalist, gives Soderling a 30% chance but reminds that Federer has aged since his peak of three or four years ago. And Wilander reminds that Federer may just be "the third-best clay-court player of all time. Just hasn't beaten Nadal here."

And now, because of Soderling, he won't have to, an unimaginable quirk if also a strange wild card.

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chuck.culpepper@yahoo.com

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