PARIS — “The way we get into these scrapes and get out of them, it’s almost as though someone was dreaming up these situations; guiding our destiny.” — Robin The Boy Wonder to Batman
American tennis fans are picky. Deep into the business end of Slams, if they can’t get blood, angst, asuperheroes and villians, they at least want marquee matchups with intrigue, contrasting styles or striking backstories.
But casual observers were more than skeptical about the the French semi wonk matchup between two mighty players, Robin Soderling and Tomas Berdych, two semi-vanilla fellows who are known more for the force of their strokes than for the force of their personalities.
For starters, Soderling is from Sweden, a fabulous tennis nation which, except for Bjorn Borg, is hardly known for charisma-loaded stars. (Stefan Edberg noted that after Borg, many Swedes have fared poorly at Wimbledon “because grass is an exciting game and we are a boring people.”) Worse yet, Mats Wilander once interrupted a TV interview with this dialogue: “If a Czech and a Swedish tennis player jumped off the Empire State Building at the same time, who would land first?”
“Who?” asked his broadcast partner.
“Who cares?” responded Wilander.
But, hey Mats, as The Joker once said, “Never rub another man’s rhubarb.”
And while Robin and the Berd-man may not have A-list personalites, their swack-and-boom power games are the future of the sport, even on clay. Tall, powerful right handed-Euros, they’ve both been tagged as underachievers. Sure, Berdych emerged fast out of starting gate raising expectations. The man with a classic Czech game has a penchant for beating Roger Federer on hefty stages – think the Athens Olympics and this year in Miami. (And yes, folks, once when Batman told Robin there was going to be an assault on Mt. Gotham, a confused Robin blurted, “Holy Alps! I’d better brush up on my geography!”)
Anyway, Berdych hasn’t been able to summit many touraments. He reached No. 9 in ’07, but fell to No. 20 last year. He’s reached the fourth round or better at 10 Slams. Impressive. But at Roland Garros, he hadn’t even gotten beyond the second round in five of the last six years.
“He can be a giant killer,” noted analyst Craig Gabriel. “Or he can go off with the pixies.”
But now he was playing the best ball of his career. En route to the semis, he destroyed John Isner. Now he would be playing this year for the first time on Court Philippe Chatrier and hoped to become the first Czech to reach the RG final since Petr Kodr in ’92.
Robin (no longer a boy wonder) had other ideas. For a couple of years, the Swede was dismissed as a kind of distant locker room pariah who feuded with young Rafael Nadal when he “wedgie-baited” the Spaniard at Wimbledon in ’07.
Then, last year in Paris, he exploded the tennis universe when he became the first human to beat Rafa at Roland Garros before suffering a straight set loss in the final to Federer.
But Soderling refused to go away and came into the French Open claiming the Rafa-less Barcelona title and the No. 7 ranking. Then he became, with Juan Martin del Potro, the only player to have Grand Slam wins over Fed AND Nadal.
Using his hefty wind-up power strokes, severe angles and an in-your-face serve, he broke to go up 4-2 in the first set and won the opener 6-3, before the Czech countered.
Yes, Big Berd is no mental giant, but the guy is hardly a stuck on Sesame Street either. Taking advantage of Soderlings double faults, he broke and began a two-set offensive. Athletic, fierce and playing first strike tennis, he took advantage of the whose imposing level dipped just slightly.
“He’s in a dark place now, a negative one,” announced John McEnroe.
But the Swede has evolved, reaching a level just a notch below the very best. The man has many of the qualities a champion needs: strokes, experience, the ability to rise above adversity and it’s cousin – fire-in-the-belly belief.
Plus, in the fifth set Berdych, long suspected of a certain fragility, blinked. His legs wobbled, every so slightly. The man who could be a giant, now seemed to be playing with the pixies. His serve was wretched when he needed it most. He dropped his serve twice, lost the last four games of the match and left Paris a 6-3, 3-6, 5-7, 6-3, 6-4 loser.
Soderling, who some actually claimed had smiled during the fifth setting is trending upward on and off the court. Rafa put it this way: “I think he’s doing well he improves his level of tennis. He improve his level of kind of person, no? I think he improve his personality the last year…He say more times hello to the rest of the —yeah, I am speaking serious.”
Plus, seriously folks, many claim Soderling actually smiled as he was gaining control of the fifth. Of course, the Swede was off in his own ecstatic universe, telling the Court Centrale crowd that his win was “better than the best dream.”
As for Berdych, it was just as Robin once so adeptly said, “It’s all a blur. Like a horrible day-mare.”