Robin Söderling: A tale of what might have been

Sport can be a cruel mistress when it comes to injuries ravaging a persons career. The chances are that no matter what sport you look at, there are stories of people who were destined to achieve great things only to have their careers ended prematurely. In tennis, Juan Martin Del Potro has recently recovered from a serious wrist problem and is currently battling his was back towards the top 10. Some people do not get a second chance though. An injury or illness with a long recovery period can often be game over for a sportsman or woman. Robin Söderling was one of the unlucky ones.

Imagine having early promise in a sport of your choice. Then imagine fulfilling that promise and reaching the very top of your game, maybe you even win some pretty big titles. Then imagine what it would be like to have that all taken away shortly before your prime, at 26 years old. That is exactly the situation that Robin Söderling found himself in. Of course he can always say he reached the elite level and enjoyed some great moments, but for tennis fans such as myself, it leaves me wondering one small question. What if?


Söderling became a household name in 2009 when he made the final of the French Open despite being the 23rd seed. The clay court Grand Slam had been won by Rafael Nadal for each of the previous four years. In fact, Nadal had never lost at Roland Garros, winning the tournament every time he had entered. Söderling had beaten David Ferrer in the 3rd round in 2009 setting up a 4th round tie against the master of the clay, Rafael Nadal. The Swede caused one of the great modern era upsets as he defeated Nadal, who was world number one at the time, in four sets. After 2009, Nadal won the next five French Open tournaments meaning that between 2005 and 2014, Söderling was the only man to beat Nadal at the French.


After this astounding victory, Söderling made it all the way to the final where he met the great Roger Federer. The experience of Federer proved too much and he did not pass up the opportunity to chalk up Grand Slam number 14. Clearly by Söderling eliminating Nadal, this was the best chance Federer would ever have to claim the one Grand Slam title he had not won. Federer has never won it since.


Despite that disappointment, it was clear that Robin Söderling was not just a one hit wonder and that he would get another chance. If 2009 was a good year for him, then 2010 was even better. The French Open of 2010 would again be the venue for Söderling to cause an upset. It was Söderling versus Federer in the Quarter Final and the advantage was clearly in favour of the man from Switzerland. Federer had made the Semi Final at least, in his previous 21 Grand Slam appearances and was the defending champion in France that year. Söderling won in four sets and after defeating Tomas Berdych, met Nadal in the final. For the second time in two years though, the Swede went home as the runner up, losing in straight sets. 

2010 continued to show encouraging signs for Söderling as he went on to reach the Quarter Final of both Wimbledon and the US Open, losing to Nadal and Federer respectively. He also won the Paris Masters tournament in what would be the only Masters title of his career. Onto 2011 and although his performance at the Australian Open, where he reached the 4th round, was a career best, his French Open exit in the Quarter Finals and his Wimbledon exit in the 3rd round (where illness hampered his performance) were disappointing by his previous standards. Söderling was however much more ruthless on the ATP tour where he reached four finals and won them all.


The last of those ATP titles came in July 2011 at the Swedish Open where he defeated David Ferrer on clay in the final. This tournament would prove to be his last. Citing a wrist injury, Söderling pulled out of subsequent events before falling ill with Glandular Fever. It was the end of a promising career aged just 26 years old. He only managed to play in 14 tournaments in 2011 but won four of them. Söderling had been hopeful of a come back but officially announced his retirement in 2015 as he felt it was clear that he would not be healthy enough to play at the level he demanded of himself. 

In men's tennis the big four have been talked about for years. Apart from the odd blip here and there, Nadal, Djokovic, Federer and Murray have been dominant in the Grand Slams for well over a decade now. Had Del Potro and Söderling managed to stay injury/illness free then we could well have been talking about a big six as both players arguably had the potential to crack into that elite. Söderling clearly had the ability to defeat Nadal and Federer and was fast approaching his prime as he won five of his ten career ATP titles between November 2010 and July 2011. Who knows how many titles he would have gone on to win.


Tennis is an unforgiving sport. A football player would not find a wrist injury career threatening, a golfer would recover from an ankle injury and get back out on tour and a rower could still compete at an Olympics even if they had broken their leg earlier in the four year cycle. For a tennis player every part of your body needs to be strong as you rely on it all. Constantly. Whilst Del Porto has made a successful comeback, the likes of Laura Robson have struggled to come back from the same injury. The road back is tough and doesn't always see players reach the heights they once managed.


I hate to see sports stars pick up injuries. I want to see the best players play in the best matches or at the best tournaments every single time. When its a story like that of Robin Söderling it is devastating because a man has lost his career and the fans have lost the opportunity to witness the great moments he would have had. Söderling will remain (as of Nov 2016), along with Novak Djokovic, the only player to beat Rafael Nadal at the French Open. There is an arguement to be made that the victory that Söderling had will never be topped as that was right in the middle of Nadal's dominance of the French.


Would Söderling have won a Grand Slam? Maybe. Would he have won more ATP events? Absolutely. Just how many we will never know, but it is not unreasonable to think that he may have come close to Lleyton Hewitt or Andy Roddick who won 30 and 32 singles titles respectively. Fortunately for tennis, Söderling has not abandoned the game. After releasing his own brand of tennis accessories under the brand RS Tennis, he became tournament director of the Stockholm Open in 2014. Whilst his playing days are over, it is nice to see that Robin Söderling still has some involvement in the sport. Perhaps defeating David Ferrer in his home country to win a clay court title was a nice way to sign off but there is one undeniable fact in all of this. The career of Robin Söderling was stolen by illness and ended far too soon.