ABU DHABI // Robin Soderling does not read press cuttings. He says he cannot worry about what people are writing about him; he only wants to worry about tennis. Yet if the Swede, who faces Stanislas Wawrinka in Abu Dhabi's Capitala World Tennis Championship tomorrow, was to glance through recent column inches he might be pleasantly surprised.
After a season in which he defeated two of the three best players in the world, claimed a fourth career title and made the final of the French Open, Soderling is not exactly getting bad press. In May he pulled off possibly the biggest tennis upset in grand slam history by beating Rafael Nadal in the fourth round of the French Open, bringing the world No 2's 31-match Roland Garros winning streak in the process.
World No 1 Roger Federer denied Soderling the title in the final, but the 25-year-old proved he was no flash in the pan by reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon and the last eight at the US Open, before he beat Nadal again last month at the ATP World Tour finals in London. Novak Djokovic, third in the world, and Nikolay Davydenko, ranked sixth, also fell to the big-serving player and Soderling was numbered inside the top-10 for the first time.
In fact, the only criticism levelled at Soderling in recent weeks, and he would have to read his cuttings to find it, is that he does not possess the off-court panache that tennis seems to demand of its stars. "I would like to ask why that is necessary," said the world's new No 8 who, in actual fact, seems approachable, soft-spoken and refreshingly modest. "I can't really care what others think of me and I never read newspapers any more. I think I have enough to do thinking about my tennis. I can't worry about what people are saying.
"I am here to play tennis, I love the sport and when I am on tour I like to spend time with my girlfriend and my family. Perhaps I am not as out-going as some players but you shouldn't have to give everything of yourself - I try to let my game do the talking." Recently, his game has done just that - it's been shouting in fact. It had a slight stutter in February, caused by a flare-up in his back, but that was forgotten once the clay season began. Now that he has shaken the injuries that blighted his last few years on tour, Soderling has shed his tag as being simply an indoor fast-court player and added "exceedingly dangerous on clay" to his CV.
"It has been nice," he said, showing a talent for understatement. "It's been a long season and it was tough in the beginning because I was out for a while but from the clay season on I had a very good year." The highlight was Paris where he beat David Ferrer, four-time champion Nadal, Davydenko and Fernando Gonzalez before losing to Federer. Soderling said confidence gained from that devastating collection of scalps on such a big stage, cannot be overestimated.
"It was great for my confidence," he said. "I played a lot of matches this year and I won a lot of matches against good players, even though I didn't play perfect tennis every match. I learned a lot." Of course there is room for improvement and Soderling said his best is yet to come. He started 2009 aiming to make the season-ending World Tour finals and break into the 10. He has done that, and those at the business end of the top-10 would do well to watch out for him, although he baulks at setting out his goals in print.
"This year I don't have specific goals," he said. "If I concentrate on playing good tennis then I will win a few matches I hope and my ranking will improve." It will not affect his ranking but his Capitala match against Switzerland's world No 21, Wawrinka, is ideal preparation. "He's a great player. I played him a few times and we had a lot of tough matches," said Soderling. "But that's what I'm looking for - a tough match I can focus on at the start of the season."
And he could be drawn against Wawrinka again on his seasonal ATP debut at the Chennai Open, two days after the Capitala ends. Federer, Nadal, Davydenko and David Ferrer, a last-minute replacement for the injured Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, join Wawrinka and Soderling in the Abu Dhabi line up, so the Swede may get another chance to torment Nadal if reaches the final or attempt a maiden victory against Federer if he is successful tomorrow in Friday's semi-final.
But that, a win against the better-known Swiss, is something Soderling is prepared to wait for. "I learn something from every match we play, even though he has beaten me every time," he said of Federer. "We had a couple of close matches where, with a little luck, I could have won but the more times I play him the closer I come to beating him. I never went away from a Federer match feeling I played well. But that's his skill. He can stop you playing your best. He's the greatest player in the world." @Email:email@example.com