Robin Soderling is a pariah amongst rabid Roger and Rafa fans. He has spoiled the Roger and Rafa narrative that we have come to expect at the finals of the French Open, at least for the last three years. Today he will stand across the net from Roger Federer, a potential spoiler for not only Roger but for tennis history as well. Many claim that if Federer can win the French, he will arguably go down as the greatest tennis player of all time! A few days ago, I was as much a Soderling hater as the rest and I’m no convert; I have and will always be a fervent Federer fan, so much so that I often can’t watch his matches as they tie me up in knots. I desperately want him to win the French and even reclaim his Wimbledon crown. Yet, today as I was laying in bed thinking ahead to the final and wondering if I could stomach watching it from the beginning, I realize that Soderling is to be celebrated. Why? Because he’s one of us.
Let’s go back to that popular narrative that has been playing out at the French Open for the past three years. This narrative includes the number one and number two players slugging it out for the title, or in Federer’s case trying to at least take a set from Nadal. The storyline was altered a bit this season as other top five players became potential contenders, most notably number four, Novak Djokovic , who seemed to have emerged as Nadal’s real rival on clay and number, three, Andy Murray, who was steadily improving on clay. As Federer battled pass some surprisingly tough competition and Djokovic was eliminated, we all started to relax and expect another Rafa and Roger show. How were we to anticipate that some dude name Soderling, who Rafa savaged in Rome in straight sets weeks earlier, would emerge the victor in their 4th round match up? Not only did he triumph against Rafa but he went on to convincingly back up his upset to become RG’s WTF finalist. There are grumblings that Soderling’s unfriendly, unsportsmanlike, and just a stick in the mud, but I suspect the real problem with Soderling is that he spoiled our party. If we weren’t going to get a Rafa vs. Roger final, we’d all be a little bit more comfortable seeing names like Gonzalez, Murray, Djokovic, and even Ferrer paired with either Roger or Rafa’ because then our narrative would still make sense; they are either top five players or noted clay court specialists. Robin Soderling is ranked 25th and was not known as any kind of specialist, a complete outlier. For those of us who toil and are not at the upper echelons of our fields, aren’t we more like Soderling than Roger or Rafa? Shouldn’t his ascension give us hope rather than pause? Why aren’t we celebrating the subversion of the dominant?
I guess in a strange way, a dominant overarching narrative of consistency and greatness makes sense to us and even gives us a reason why we, like a Soderling, never make it to the inner circle. Clearly, Soderling had the skills necessary to beat the players he’s beaten this week, but either through a lack of focus, belief, or support, he did not put his game together consistently enough to convince us that he deserved to be one of two men standing at the end of this Slam. Does Roger and Rafa’s winning consistency make Soderling’s startling run less valuable or worthy of celebrating? I hope not. It’s useful to have a shake-up in sport and other endeavors, because it creates a sense of possibility in everyone else. How many of us truly believe we can dominate like Roger or Rafa? Maybe a lucky few will say, damn right I’ll be the next Roger or Rafa in their respective fields! Yet many more of us can take heart from Soderling’s run and believe that with effort, support, and belief, we too can shine in real life as many of us do in our dreams.
As the final approaches, I am prepared to watch it from the start, because I want to see a winner emerge who plays with skill, heart, and fearlessness. If that winner is Roger, then he will have faced his demons, confronted history, and triumphed; if that winner is Soderling, then he will have fulfilled the promise of his great run and I can’t be mad at the spoiler; since I hope to be one someday.