A Grand Slam event without Roger Federer in the last weekend could be compared to seeing a movie where the protagonist dies three-quarters of the way in; kind of like seeing Neo killed off before the last act of The Matrix.
But I actually think that metaphor sells Federer’s position in the game short; it’s more like the event has lost it’s central plot device, kind of like The Matrix with no Matrix. Federer had been in the semis of every Grand Slam since Wimbledon of 2004, making for record 23 in a row.
Second place? That’s a tie between Ivan Lendl and Rod Laver, with 10 consecutive semis apiece.
Before Federer began his ridiculous streak, observers had generally calculated tennis greatness according to the number of majors won or the time spent at No. 1. Federer is remarkable in those categories, holding the record of 15 majors won and spending an unprecedented 237 weeks straight at the No. 1 ranking.
But the semifinal streak may be the true measure of his greatness because, impressive as the other records may be, there are other players in the ball park. In terms of the semis, no one comes close.
Going into the last four RGs, the question was, “Can Roger finally win here?” This year, early in the week, there was the question of “Can Roger finally beat Rafa here?” as well as “Can Roger win the complete Grand Slam this year?”
Now that those have been answered in the negative, other questions have taken their place.
Why couldn’t Federer continue his streak?
This was the first time since Federer became a Grand Slam champion that he entered Paris without having won a tournament between the RG and the Australian Open. In virtually every event he played leading up to Madrid, he drew a very tough opponent making a push for greater results this year—be it Marcos Baghdatis in Indian Wells, Tomas Berdych in Miami, Ernests Gulbis in Rome, and Albert Montanes in Estoril.
This kept him from gaining the match play he would have wanted and really putting his stamp on the rest of the tour.
Tonight he faced a player whose stock has risen dramatically since last year, who we know is not intimidated by great players on long streaks, and in unfavorable conditions.
Soderling is not nearly as great a mover as Federer, he lacks the Swiss’ feel—especially at net—and doesn’t even hit that much harder than the No. 1. When the rains came in the second set, though, the entire complexion of the match changed.
The one advantage Soderling has over Federer is that he’s a really big guy—at 6’4” and about 200 pounds—and is strong enough to make a heavy, wet tennis ball do essentially what it was doing in dry conditions. At three inches and about 20 pounds lighter, that’s the one category where Federer suffers by comparison.
But of all those explanations, maybe the simplest and truest is this: It was just time.
Federer’s streak had to end at some point, and now that he is 28 and has essentially clinched the status of greatest player of the Open Era (and possibly beyond), unrelated factors finally converged.
It happens to everyone, including the best.
Can Soderling win this event?
While Le Sod was shocking the sports world, his semifinal opponent, Tomas Berdych, was crushing Mikhail Youzhny 6-3, 6-1, 6-2. Berdych has not lost a set in this event and defeated No. 4 Andy Murray in the fourth round.
Berdych’s forehand is a very different sort than Soderling’s in that it’s much flatter and less ornate, but it certainly rivals the Swede’s as one of the game’s biggest. Soderling has faced a tougher draw, having lost a set to Federer one to Montanes, so he may be more tested and ready for battle.
Plus, if it’s wet, the very tall (6’5”) but very slight Berdych may not have as much success muscling the ball over the net the way the beefier Swede can. In dry conditions I expect a thriller, though I lean toward Soderling, mainly because he’s earned it.
Will we get a Nadal-Soderling final?
It’d be fitting, wouldn’t it? One year after Soderling hands Nadal his first ever defeat at the RG and sends the Spaniard’s career into a tailspin, Nadal may have to regain his position as the king of clay by beating Soderling on final Sunday.
Plus, there’d be a chance that, having beaten Nadal and falling to Federer last year, Soderling might endure the reverse this time.
It’d be an enticing matchup, especially in the rain, but the Spaniard can’t be thinking about that now. He has a very, very tough opponent today in Nicolas Almagro, who just crushed Fernando Verdasco in round four.
Nadal has looked good so far—he still hasn’t dropped a set—but not as unbeatable as in 2008 or 2007. Almagro is one of the few players who could conceivably beat Rafael Nadal should he not bring his best game.
But I think he will.