Classroom To The Court: Swedish Teen Making Noise At Charlottesville Challenger
The University of Virginia has set the benchmark for success at the collegiate level and that prosperity is translating to the professional ranks this week at the Charlottesville Challenger. The contingent of talented Cavaliers, led by freshman Carl Soderlund, are sending a message to the established veterans and surging #NextGen stars on the ATP Challenger Tour.
Senior Ryan Shane and junior Alexander Ritschard took full advantage of their main draw wild cards in snatching sets from top seeds Frances Tiafoe and Jared Donaldson, respectively. Seniors Thai-Son Kwiatkowski and JC Aragone also forced their first-round opponents - Tim Smyczek and Liam Broady - to go the distance.
Shane, who made his tour-level debut at the US Open last year and appeared in qualifying at the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event in Miami, pushed Tiafoe to the brink, holding break points to serve for the match in the third set. He is not surprised by the team's success and believes it stems from the culture that coach Brian Boland has established over the past two decades.
"It speaks to UVA and Coach Boland a lot," said Shane. "He's developed a lot of players. Thai had a great summer and now he's come through qualifying here, beating some good guys. He took a set off Smyczek who's been Top 100. Even JC qualified and took a set from Broady. You can see guys getting better and it really speaks to what Boland is doing here."
Coach Boland has produced a factory of pro players during his tenure, with Somdev Devvarman and Brian Vahaly reaching the Top 100 in singles and Dominic Inglot and Treat Huey doing the same in doubles. But perhaps one of the best to emerge from Charlottesville is just beginning his journey. Soderlund, a 19-year-old freshman from Stockholm, Sweden, has already made a significant impact against world-class competition.
The Swedish teen entered this week's Charlottesville Men's Pro Challenger, just outside the Top 400 in the Emirates ATP Rankings, and he would score the upset of the tournament: a 7-6(1), 4-6, 6-2 stunner of Sam Groth on Monday evening. Soderlund saved 10 of 13 break points during an intense two-hour and five-minute battle. Groth was riding a surge of momentum following a title run in Las Vegas two weeks ago.
An aspiring economics major, Soderlund came straight from the classroom to the Boar's Head Sports Club for his match.
"It was great to play where my new home is and having all the people seeing me out there," Soderlund told ATPWorldTour.com. "I was just trying to focus. I knew he has a big serve and I was just trying to not think about that too much. I wanted to get as many returns in as possible, because that made it harder for him. I tried to keep it simple. I have good defence with my ground game and it helps me in tough situations a lot."
In July, in his first ATP Challenger Tour main draw in Bastad, Soderlund was the talk of the tournament, reaching the semi-finals. That was immediately followed by his maiden ATP World Tour match win at the SkiStar Swedish Open a week later.
"I like playing in front of a lot of people," Soderlund said about the home-court advantage in Bastad and his adopted new home of Charlottesville. "They give you energy. It was really fun. I knew a lot of people around there. I'm from Sweden, so everyone was cheering for me and it was really nice. It really boosted my confidence. I knew I could beat those players. It was a really important tournament for me."
Arguably the most remarkable aspect of Soderlund's journey is his late start in the sport, due to a rare leg ailment. The Swede was born with a condition where a bone cut into his right quadriceps muscle whenever he would bend his knee. It was a painful ailment, which was eventually resolved with a surgery at age 17 to shave down the bone, followed by a six-month rehab process.
"I was injured for a long time and now I realise how great tennis is and how grateful I am to be playing. I then started looking into colleges and I felt that this was the best way for me to develop as a player. I got in touch with the coaches and I really liked how they work with the players. When I got here, I met the guys on the team and I like them a lot. Everyone is working hard and the competition is really good in practice. I feel like I'm in the best place I can be."
Despite transitioning his development to the United States, Soderlund still has deep roots in his homeland. One of his earliest tennis memories was watching Joachim Johansson stun Rafael Nadal at the 2006 If Stockholm Open and he has trained at Magnus Norman's Good To Great Academy, often hitting with the former World No. 2.
"I practise with Mikael Ymer a lot too," Soderlund said of his fellow rising Swedish teen. "He and Elias [Ymer] are really great guys. When I see them do well, I want to improve. It inspires me. That's good for us."
"I believe he can be a top level pro and a complete player, starting with his serve," said Coach Boland. "There are some areas he can improve over the course of the next couple years. He's extremely fast and defends the court at a high level. Now it's just about developing the rest of his game and he'll be quite dangerous."
Soderlund will look to continue his dream run in Charlottesville when he tangles with fourth seed Denis Kudla on Wednesday night.