When Robin Soderling succumbed to a hard-fought three-set defeat at the hands of Roger Federer in the 2009 Men’s Singles Final at Roland Garros, it seemed as though it was only a matter of time until the then-25-year-old made a breakthrough at major championship level.
After all, the Swede became the first man ever to beat nine-time champion Rafael Nadal at the French Open in the fourth round, and he finished the season by achieving career-best results at Wimbledon (Round 4) and the U.S. Open (quarter-finals), climbing as high as No. 8 in the world rankings as a consequence.
In 2010, Soderling recovered from a shock first-round exit at the hands of Spaniard Marcel Granollers in the Australian Open by winning his fifth ATP Tour singles title at the Rotterdam Open in February (beating Mikhail Youzhny in the final), and he went on to dump Federer out of the quarter-finals at Roland Garros in the process of reaching the final for the second year running.
While he was comfortably seen off by Nadal in the decider, runs to the quarter-finals of both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, combined with a debut Masters Series victory in Paris, ensured that Soderling finished the year ranked No. 5 in the world, just a place outside the so-called “Big Four” of Nadal, Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray.
But where that quartet have gone on to win 39 of the last 43 men’s major singles titles, from the 2005 French Open through to the 2015 U.S. Open, Soderling has not struck a ball at major championship level since losing in the third-round of Wimbledon in 2011, and he has not featured on the ATP Tour since winning his 10th singles title that July.
Yesterday, he announced his retirement from professional tennis.
The first serious disruption of Soderling’s career came shortly after he won the Swedish Open in 2011. A wrist injury forced him to withdraw from back-to-back hard court Masters tournaments in Montreal and Cincinnati in August and a diagnosis of mononucleosis, more commonly known as glandular fever, saw him pull out of the U.S. Open on the eve of the tournament.
Soderling only managed 14 starts on the ATP Tour in 2011, but it is a testament to the level that the Swede was performing at that he still won 38 of 47 matches, claimed four tournament victories and finished the season ranked 13 in the world. It seemed a formality that Soderling would recuperate over the winter, make a strong return to form at the 2012 Australian Open, and reclaim his place in the world’s top five by the time Roland Garros rolled around.
The first public insight into the seriousness of Soderling’s illness did not come until December of 2011 when the player confirmed that he would miss both the Australian Open and Roland Garros in 2012 in a bid to be fit to compete at the London Olympics in July. The fact that the Swede was nowhere to be seen in London gave fans real cause for concern, and he dropped out of the ATP Rankings in July 2012 after having failed to compete on the Tour for a full 12 months.
By the start of the 2013 season, it was clear that the future of Soderling’s career was under real threat, and although the player claimed in May that he was hopeful of returning to the Tour in 2016, there was never any possibility of the Swede recapturing his best form after a four-year absence.
In this context, we can perhaps be grateful that Soderling decided to end his playing career now rather than toil on the Challenger Tour in a futile bid to return to the level that he reached in 2010. At his peak, the Swede possessed all of the attributes needed to vie with the “Big Four” – a lightning serve, a crushing forehand, quick feet, exceptional endurance, and a big game mentality – and the fact that stylistically similar players in Juan Martin Del Potro, Stan Wawrinka, and Marin Cilic have won majors over the last decade suggests that Soderling was well placed to do as well.
Soderling retires with two major championship finals, 10 ATP singles titles, a top-five ranking, and a Paris Masters victory to his name. Tt is fitting that a player of that calibre bows out of the sport on his own terms.
[Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images]