Sweden’s Robin Söderling, who achieved a career-high ranking of 4, is best known for being one of only two players to have beaten Rafael Nadal at the French Open, one of the sport’s greatest upsets. Following his fourth-round, four-set win in 2009, Soderling reached the finals and eventually lost to Roger Federer. He reached the final again in 2010, this time losing to Nadal. He won 10 singles titles and retired in 2011 following a long-running illness. He spoke to Lounge over the phone from Stockholm on defeating Nadal, success on clay, and this year’s favourites. Edited excerpts:
Who are your favourites for this year’s French Open?
This clay season has been interesting, with different winners in different tournaments. It’s hard to say Rafa has struggled, but compared to what he has done in past clay-court seasons, he has been struggling a bit. I would say Rafa is a favourite, it’s difficult not to. There are a few players who can win it this year, so that’s fun and makes it more interesting. I am impressed with the way (Juan Martin) del Potro played in Rome. (Dominic) Thiem, of course. And Novak Djokovic. Roger played better on clay than I expected, considering he hasn’t for so many years.
How difficult would it be for Federer to return to clay after a three-year gap?
I would say not very easy but Roger grew up playing on clay a lot. He’s a good clay courter. But if you haven’t been doing it for three years, it takes a while getting used to.
What does it take to be a successful clay-court player?
You have to have good groundstrokes on both the forehand and backhand. Maybe 20 years ago it was easier to get away with one really good shot and one a bit weaker. You have to be physically and mentally strong, you rally for longer on clay, the matches last longer on average.
How different were the two French Open finals you played?
In the first, I wasn’t really prepared mentally; that was my first final. I didn’t play my best match and Roger was more comfortable in that situation. Against Rafa, I was better mentally but that year I was more tired physically coming into the final. I lost to two of the best in history, so it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
How does it feel to be best known as one of only two people to beat Nadal at Roland Garros?
It’s really nice, it’s a great achievement. But imagine what Rafa has done. He won 11 times. That says more about Rafa, losing only those two matches, than me and Novak, who beat him once each. I am also really proud of being able to continue after beating him in the fourth round. I played well in the quarters and semis. Sometimes, there is a big upset and it takes a lot and coming into the next match players can’t get up to the same standard.
What does it take to beat Nadal on clay?
You need to play really aggressive and be able to put a lot of pressure on him. Play with depth, a little flatter and be the one that dictates. It was about playing my own game but taking more chances. I didn’t have to change my style, just go for it a bit more.
My backhand down the line worked well against him.
Did anyone believe it could happen?
I am pretty sure no one expected me to beat him. After my third-round match, my team said you have a chance to beat Rafa. Of course, they said that to give me confidence but no one really expected it. At my press conference (before the match), the first question I got was, do you think Rafa will win again this year? Going into the match without expectations, I had nothing to lose. I could take my chances, which was nice. My plan was to play one point at a time, not think too much of the score. One of Rafa’s biggest assets is that he never gives up. So I told myself I had to keep playing until the end.
How does it feel watching some of your peers still competing?
It’s nice. But it can be a bit frustrating because I think I could still be there, maybe I missed some good years. In the beginning, after I retired, it was more difficult; players I had a winning record against, like Stan Wawrinka, Marin Čilić, were winning Slams, and you start to think maybe I could have too.
You joked that Federer never thanked you for defeating Nadal and helping him win his only French Open.
It was just a joke. He played extremely well that year, he could have beaten Rafa. I wouldn’t say he won that year because of me. Other players should thank Roger, Rafa and Novak for what they have done for tennis. It was frustrating to have the best in history playing at the same time. But they have done so much for the sport.