Soderling and Berdych: Big men are first to French semis
The 128 had whittled down to just eight. They were the men who had fought off four opponents on their way to the quarter-finals of the most important clay tournament in the world.
The very best of them had another three men to beat if they were to lift the French Open trophy, and Robin Soderling and Tomas Berdych have now passed that first hurdle.
Soderling, the sardonic Swede, has stormed through this tournament much as he did in 2009 when he shocked the tennis world by taking out the expert clay courter David Ferrer and then reigning champion Rafael Nadal.
He went on to beat Nikolay Davydenko and Fernando Gonzalez to take a place in his first, and thus far only, Grand Slam final. On that occasion, he lost to Roger Federer.
In the 2010 quarter-finals the tables were turned. At the 13th time of asking he defeated Federer 3-6 6-3 7-5 6-4 in two hours and 30 minutes.
Soderling’s preparation for Roland Garros was far from ideal. He suffered early exits in Rome, Madrid and Nice, but there is something about the courts in Paris that seems to suit him. Indeed he said after his victory that the French tournament was his favourite of all.
In the first round he lost just five games and in the second only two. And he looked as though he had plenty more power, more range, and more energy in hand. Sure enough, his first encounter with a seed, Albert Montanes, took just four sets and the daunting figure of Marin Ã„Å’iliÃ„”¡ was dismissed in three.
What makes Soderling’s latest win even more impressive is that he generated a pace that one might expect from hot, dry conditions, but Roland Garros was once again cool and damp. Where Federer struggled to generate enough power through the court, Soderling was able to penetrate to the lines off both the ground and his serve.
On paper there was little to separate them: 64% on first serves, 40 and 49 winners respectively. But Soderling’s second serve was almost as fast as Federer’s first, and it was accurate. And more surprising he attacked the net more often than Federer.
A confident Soderling is a dangerous prospect and on Tuesday he looked both confident and aggressive.
Perhaps he remembered Davydenko’s comment after the Russian beat Federer for the first time after 12 losses: “No one beats me 13 times.” This was Soderling’s 13th attempt, and he never appeared to doubt that this was his turn.
He goes on to meet his near mirror image in the form of Berdych. The Czech, in a completely dominant performance, beat Mikhail Youzhny 6-3 6-1 6-2 to reach his first Slam semi-final.
Berdych’s progress has been just as impressive than Soderling’s. He has yet to drop a set despite facing the quality of Andy Murray and the power of John Isner.
His second serve topped out at over 125 mph and if he maintains the same aggressive game plan that got him this far, Philippe Chatrier could be in for fireworks when he faces Soderling.
For a start, they hold first and third positions in the Roland Garros aces league table: 57 for Soderling and 49 Berdych. They may both be quiet men off-court, but they are proving to be big in every way once they have a racket in their hands.
First they have to wait and see who will join them in the semi-finals. Jurgen Melzer, the 29-year-old Austrian, may be oldest man in the quarter-finals but he is enjoying his best ever Slam run. Indeed, he has never even reached the fourth round before.
But anyone who can take out clay-court maestro Ferrer has to be in good form. The talented and hungry Novak Djokovic may, however, be one challenge too far.
As for the all-Spanish match between Rafael Nadal and Nicolas Almagro, most pundits will admit only one winner.
Nadal has yet to drop a set, has looked faster and stronger against each challenger and, with Federer out of the way, can now see the way to taking the No.1 ranking along with the French title.
But Almagro needs only to look at Soderling who, until Roland Garros last year, had never beaten Nadal. Now he has beaten Federer too.