Soderling on Nadal: 'His motivation is amazing'

Robin Soderling, one of only two men to beat Rafael Nadal at Roland-Garros, is in awe of the Spaniard's enduring brilliance.

Robin Soderling (L) and Rafael Nadal prior to their 2010 Roland-Garros final.© Corinne Dubreuil / FFT
 - Alex Sharp

Going for a fifth successive Roland-Garros title in 2009, the reign of Rafa was obliterated by a world No.25 outsider.

Remember the name Robin Soderling?

The Swede inflicted a 6-2 6-7(2) 6-4 7-6(2) fourth-round defeat on the ‘King of clay’, his first ever loss on the red dirt of Roland-Garros.

Since then has been a tricky tale for Soderling.

After a decade on tour, Soderling's ranking peaked at No.4 in the world. Paris in particular holds a special place in his heart; a year after ruling Rafa, he surged into the Roland-Garros final in 2010, losing to the Spaniard in straight sets. He also claimed the Paris Masters later that autumn.

Robin Soderling celebrates his defeat of Rafael Nadal in the fourth round at Roland-Garros in 2009.© Gianni Giaccia / FFT

But in 2011, a nasty four-year battle with glandular fever began, culminating in Soderling's retirement from the professional ranks in December 2015.

Mentally and physically it was draining, but Soderling was determined to stay in the sport. He has since set up a tennis ball and accessory company, and recently began coaching fellow Swedish up-and-comer Elias Ymer.

The 33-year-old has returned to the French Open this week for the first time since 2011, and was in good spirits as he reflected on his career with reporters.

Unsurprisingly, a certain Spaniard dominated the conversation.

“He's still here and has a chance to win 11 times. I don't think we’re ever going to see that again - well, at least not in my lifetime,” joked Soderling in press.

“It's unbelievable. It says so much about him. And what I'm really impressed with is that he looks almost as hungry, or even hungrier than when he won it the first time. You know, he didn't lose any motivation at all. It's amazing to see.”

Soderling kept a keen eye over Nadal’s semi-final with Diego Schwartzman and believes the Rafa backhand wing is the critical area of improvement from the world No.1.

“I would say he's probably as good now as before, and it's just amazing. He’s 32, but if he can stay injury-free, there is nothing that says that he can't win this two, three, four times more. It's unbelievable.”

Looking back to 2009, Soderling offered his blue print for nullifying Nadal on these hallowed clay courts.

“The only chance for any player now is to be really aggressive,” declared Soderling, who joins Novak Djokovic as the two people to blemish the Spaniard’s 84-2 Roland-Garros record. "To beat him in five sets on clay is even more difficult.

“It's an extremely difficult task to do. You have to take a lot of risks, but nothing is impossible.”

As Robin himself proved… 

Now coaching world No.122 Ymer, Soderling said he would instruct a pupil facing Nadal to adopt the right mindset in order to oust the reigning champion.

“I would say, don’t think too much about how much you have to do. Because if you think about it - 'Oh, I have to win three sets against Rafa, it's really tough...'

“Sometimes you can see a little bit when Rafa gets a little bit hesitant. So, he would need to really play one point at a time and really take some risks and not care if he makes more unforced errors than usual.

“It's important that he shows himself, and that he shows Rafa and everyone, that he's on the court to win. Sometimes I see many, many players, top players, they go on the court against Rafa on clay, they hope that they will win, but they don't really believe it. I think it's really important that you show everyone that you are on the court to win.”

Having kept himself busy and boosting his fitness, Soderling is now relishing life away from the professional side of the game, but admits it wasn’t an easy transition.

“Now I've kind of come to terms with it. But, of course, sometimes when I travel with Elias to tournaments, I'm there as a coach. I'm in the locker room, and I still see the players I used to compete against. They are still playing. Of course, sometimes I feel, 'Oh, I should be here as a player, not as a coach,'” revealed the 33-year-old.

“At the same time, I see all the stress in all the players' faces. You know, they are stressed before their matches. It's a certain life. It's a tough life, but it's a lot of fun.

“I see that Elias improved a lot. We started a year ago, and he was 280. Now he's really close of breaking the top 100, which is of course, a goal for him and a goal for me. It's beautiful, and makes me happy when I see that he's improving.”