Soderling's Secrets To Beating Rafa
It is no surprise that beating Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros is one of the most challenging tasks in tennis. Robin Soderling was the first person to defeat the Spaniard at the clay-court Grand Slam in the Round of 16 nine years ago, after Nadal triumphed in his first four appearances.
Soderling, whose career was cut short by mononucleosis, returned to Roland Garros this year for the first time since 2011, when he last competed on the terre battue. And the 33-year-old, who reached back-to-back finals at the event in 2009 and 2010, revealed his secret to beating Nadal.
“I think to beat him on clay [is challenging]. But to beat him in five sets on clay is even more difficult,” Soderling said. “It has to be a player that plays extremely well. And I think to beat him on clay, I would say the only chance for any player now is to be really aggressive.”
Nadal has lost just one set this fortnight, the first set of his quarter-final against Diego Schwartzman in which the Argentine hit 20 winners. Soderling noticed that the No. 11 seed’s strategy paid dividends.
“I was watching Schwartzman… he played extremely aggressive in the first set,” Soderling said. “It's an extremely difficult task to do. You have to take a lot of risks. So of course, he [Nadal] is the favourite.”
And while Soderling is plenty familiar with Nadal’s level — the Spaniard won six of their eight FedEx ATP Head2Head meetings — there is one thing in particular that sticks out to the former No. 4 player in the ATP Rankings.
“I don't think we’re ever going to see that again. Well, at least not in my lifetime,” Soderling said. “It's unbelievable. It says so much about him. And what I'm really impressed [with] is that, even though he won it 10 times, he's here to win 11 times. He looks almost as hungry or even hungrier than when he won it the first time. He didn't lose any motivation at all. It's amazing to see.”
While Soderling provided the advice he would have given Schwartzman after his match was suspended overnight due to rain, it applies in general for how the Swede suspects any player, including Thiem in the final, should attempt to play against Nadal.
“Really take some risk and don't care if he makes a little bit more unforced errors than usual. And also, I think it's important that he shows himself and that he shows Rafa and everyone that he's on the court to win,” Soderling said. “Many, many players, even good players, top players… you can almost see that they don't really believe 100 per cent that they can win. They hope that they will win, but they don't really believe in it… I think it's really important that you show everyone that you are on the court to win.”
Soderling, one of just two players (Novak Djokovic, 2015) who has beaten Nadal in a best-of-five-set match on clay (110-2), thinks that Nadal is just as good now as he has ever been. And, barring a setback, he could see more Coupes de Mousquetaires in Nadal's future.
“I think he actually improved his backhand a little bit. I'm really impressed about the way he plays his backhand now. Even when players put a lot of pace on his backhand, he's defending really well,” Soderling said. “Maybe he's not moving as good as he did maybe five, six, 10 years ago. But it's very small difference. I would say he's probably as good now as before, and it's just amazing… if he can stay injury-free, there is nothing that says that he can't win this two, three, four times more. It's unbelievable.”