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It’s Over: Federer’s Otherworldly Streak of 23 Consecutive Semi-Final Appearances Broken by a Sledgehammer

June 1st, 2010 No comments

I’d seen the future during the 2009 Australian Open, when Roger Federer fell down by a quick two sets to the hard-hitting Czech, Tomas Berdych. Scrambling and on defense, Federer mustered all of his considerable court craft (and a mental vacation by Berdych) to get through the early-round match in five sets. I thought then that Berdych and maybe one or two others had the arsenal to defeat Federer: height and torrid groundstrokes than would take away the great one’s time to create his inspiring masterpieces.

In last year’s U.S. Open final, Juan Martin DelPotro, another hard-hitting giant, blew Federer off the court in the fifth set. And then it happened again today — in the quarterfinal of the French Open, which was almost universally expected to feature a final between Federer and his personal bane, Rafael Nadal, he was caught and passed by the thumping, hammering strokes of Robin Soderling. After Federer won the first set, he let down just a bit (as he did against DelPotro last year), and Soderling stormed through the breach. By Federer’s last service game, the clearly rattled Swiss committed four unforced errors to hand the match over to Soderling to serve out — which he easily did, showing remarkable nerve.

One point sticks in my mind as emblematic of  the limits of Federer’s great genius. With a set point to go up by two sets to one, Federer tracked down an overhead smash. He executed a beautiful, balletic jump from the nether reaches of the court, well beyond the baseline, and hit a curving shot at full stretch. The ball was headed toward Soderling’s side of the net, where it would have dropped in for a set-ending winner, likely turning the match around. But not today! Soderling stretched upward (I’m not sure he’s capable of leaving his feet), reached over his head and hit an-over-the-back shot into the open court. Here it is:

After that, the whole thing unfolded with a kind of preditability — even though this is a guy Federer had defeated all of the previous twelve times they’d played. But he’s improved, and he’s not the same player here — especially under these conditions. Last year, on a similarly wet and heavy day, Soderling blew Nadal off the court on his way to a final against Federer, where he caved under the weight of destiny, as instantiated by Federer’s almost perfect game that day.

Federer had a great deal to lose. In addition to having his just…silly streak of 23 consecutive semi-final or better appearances in Grand Slam events (dating back to 2004!) snapped, he will lose the number one ranking next week if Nadal goes on to win the French Open. In that case, he’ll be one week short of Pete Sampras’s all-time record for most weeks at Number 1. And with Nadal almost five years younger and on the ascendancy once again, there’s no guarantee he’ll ever get it back.

But don’t expect Nadal to waltz through the final. I think Soderling has shown that he’s ready to step up and win the event. He’s already shown that he can take down both Nadal and Federer on clay. Now he “just” has to do it in the final. I’m reminded of a line from the justly forgotten Superman III, where Robert Vaughn says to a henchman:

I asked you to kill Superman. And now you tell me you couldn’t do that one simple thing?

Soderling just killed Superman. Now let’s see if he can take down the Hulk — for a second time, and when it most matters.