ABU DHABI // If there was ever any doubt professional tennis players do not take pre-season exhibition tournaments seriously, Robin Soderling once again smashed them with all the might of a man intent on major glory.
With the warm afternoon sun having descended and a wintery night's chill hanging in the air around Zayed Sports City Tennis Complex, the strapping world No5 battled for more than an hour and 30 minutes before dispatching Jo Wilfried Tsonga, his robust opponent, 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 6-1.
Soderling, who reached the final last year and maintains his undefeated record against the Frenchman after four matches, said he was pleased with his performance and is looking forward to renewing rivalries with Roger Federer, who he meets in today's semi-final.
"It was a tough match, but it's a really great start to the season," Soderling said. "Confidence is very important in this sport and matches like that always help, especially at this stage of the season."
It was the first time the two players had met since Indian Wells in California earlier this year.
Tsonga had been forced to miss much of the remainder of the season through injury, but had said before the match that he was feeling fresh.
He failed to capitalise on his freshness, however, immediately falling a game behind when Soderling broke him with a series of powerful groundstrokes.
The Frenchman never recovered and after failing to break back, lost his inaugural set in Abu Dhabi.
He rallied and showed some of the muscle that gained him a place in the top 10 at the start of last year, pushing his opponent to a tie-break and closing it out with a cheeky lob that left Soderling chasing his own shadow.
But as the final set progressed, Tsonga's lack of match fitness began to show and in the end it was quite comfortable for the Scandinavian.
"It's good because I am only coming back and need to find my rhythm and that can only come through competitive matches,' Tsonga said.
"Of course it was difficult in the first set because when you don't play regularly against top players you get tired a lot more quick and everything seems harder.
"But I played some good tennis at times and did some good things and can be confident for the start of the season."
Soderling meets Federer today at 3pm in a re-run of last year's semifinal, which saw him defeat the 14-time major winner for the first time - a match that helped provided the confidence to do the same in the quarter-finals of the French Open later in the season.
"I've always had good matches with Roger and it's always special to play against one of the greatest of all time," Soderling added.
"We had a great match last year here, which I won and I am sure it will be fun. This tournament only involves world-class players and I always learn from playing against them."