First Nadal, now Federer. Lightning does strike twice at Roland Garros as Robin Soderling marches on in his role as French Open king-slayer. Twelve months after the fierce hitting Swede had caused one of the biggest tennis sensations in years by bringing down the undisputed King of Clay, Rafael Nadal, with a remarkable quarter-final performance, he produced an even better display to wreck the burning career ambition of Roger Federer.
Federer, the world No 1 who is desperate to add an elusive Calendar Grand Slam (winning all four major championships in the same year) to his enormous collection of honours, had no answer to the power and determination of his fifth-seeded rival in a thrilling encounter which was twice interrupted by bad weather which has been a lingering nuisance at this showpiece event. The two rain breaks seemed to have a greater effect on the highly experienced Federer than the steadily improving Soderling, who confirmed his status as a genuine top-10 player by finally finding a way to overcome Federer at the 13th time of asking.
Still smarting from his straight sets defeat by Federer in last year's final and subsequent painful high profile defeats by the world No 1 at Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows, Soderling refused to buckle as pressure intensified approaching the denouement. As more rain threatened to spoil his impending moment of glory, he held his game together impressively to complete his fantastic 3-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 triumph in two-and-a-half hours.
An elated Soderling told the shivering Court Philippe Chatrier crowd: "It can't get any better than this. To beat the world No 1 in this arena two years running is a wonderful feeling. I've been playing well throughout the tournament but I felt I played my best tennis today." For added measure, the defeat brings a halt to Federer's phenomenal run of 23 consecutive grand slam semi-final appearances.
Federer is at his most vulnerable on clay as his record over the last decade indicates. Only one of his 16 grand slams have been won at Roland Garros but after laying that ghost to rest in the absence of his nemesis Nadal a year ago, the Swiss master was at least expected to book another date with the Spaniard to settle the destiny of the coveted prize on Sunday. That privilege may now go to Soderling who went all the way to the final 12 months ago after his epic win over Nadal. The world No 2, well short of peak fitness on that occasion, is back to his imperious best now and will be confident of avenging that disappointment if the opportunity arises on Sunday.
Nadal will be almost as pleased as Soderling at the premature exit of Federer. Even though Nadal has enjoyed an emphatic 14-7 dominance - 12 of them in finals - over his chief rival in their previous meetings, his chances of winning his favourite tournament for a fifth time in six years are now significantly greater. To keep alive hopes of a Roland Garros rematch with Nadal, Soderling must first overcome Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic. The 15th-seeded Berdych, who ousted Britain's dual grand slam finalist Andy Murray in the fourth round, enjoyed an unexpectedly facile passage in yesterday's other quarter-final.
Russia's Mikhail Youzhny, ranked above him and seeded 11th, hardly got going as Berdych effortlessly carved out his 6-3, 6-1, 6-2 victory and he, too, will be glad that Federer has been removed. Yesterday's was Federer's seventh defeat of a season which is not yet halfway through. The Swiss, who became a father of twin girls between winning his sixth Wimbledon title and fifth US Open crown last year has paid the price for trying to cherry-pick his titles.
Another Paris let-down, however, is unlikely to deflect him from his mission of going further clear in the all-time list of grand slam titles by capitalising on his love for the grass of Wimbledon later this month. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org