Soderling: Federer Was a Very Difficult Match Up For Me

Last week I published a post on Roger Federer’s generation and what they were up to now. One player just outside that gen of players is two time French Open Finalist, Robin Soderling, who sadly had to retire in 2015 due to mononucleosis.

The Swede last played in 2011 and you don’t hear too much about him but this week he appeared on the Tennis with an Accent Podcast where he talked about his career, life as a tournament director, the coaching of Elias Ymer and his new life as a businessman running his own company RS Tennis.

I thought it was an interesting listen especially where he discussed how tournaments are run and the struggles smaller tournaments face.

He wasn’t forthcoming with numbers of course but it was easy to deduce that the 250’s struggle like mad and even getting a big name doesn’t guarantee profitability.

It was also interesting to find out that players do request what speed of surfaces they would like at smaller events. Not something I’d heard before and I’m not sure I like the idea of it. Has player power has gone mad and is the game too dependent on the big names?

Some of the smaller tournaments are wholly reliant on big name guys to sell tickets, so they bend over backwards for them. Is that a good thing? Let me know your thoughts in the comments on that one.

Soderling also discussed two of his most memorable career wins, beating Nadal and Federer in back to back French Opens and offered some insight onto the matchups:

It’s difficult to compare matches. Like you said I always had more troubles playing Roger. I wouldn’t say Roger is a better player than Rafa but they have different game styles and I would say Roger’s game style, or actually, I would say Rafa’s game style suited me better than Roger’s.

I played many times against Rafa, I won some, I lost some. But many times getting off the court even if I lost the match, I could feel I still played pretty well. But against Roger there were not many matches that I felt I played well. I realised that’s because his game style didn’t suit my game style at all.

You can listen to the podcast below:

I’ve also had the entire interview transcribed for those who prefer reading.

Tennis With An Accent Podcast: Two Time French Open Finalist Robin Soderling

Soderling Nadal

Saqib: Hello everyone, welcome to Tennis with an Accent, this is Saqib. Today we have a special guest, totally out of our league, two time French Open finalist from Sweden, Robin Soderling. He has taken time out of his busy schedule to join us. Hello Robin, it’s an honour to have you here.

Soderling: Thank you, it’s an honour for me to be part of your podcast.

Saqib: Haha you’re too kind. I’m still projecting myself as a fan even though I have this small podcast that is growing in popularity. I’m very excited about this conversation since I spoke with your agent and now finally the day is here.

Let me start by just asking some questions I know you have been asked before, I’ll try to keep it original. But you come from Sweden, definitely a lot of tennis history there.

When I grew up I watching Tennis it was Edberg, Wilander, Jarryd, Nystrom, then followed the next class with Bjorkman and yourself. You were one of the best Swedish players very recently. Who were your inspirations and how did you get into tennis?

Soderling: Yeah I mean basically exactly what you said. When I grew up tennis was such a big sport in this country, almost everybody played tennis.

I think that’s because we had so many good players in the past and during the mid-1980s to the beginning of the ’90s there were so many tennis courts in Sweden popping up everywhere. Of course, mostly indoor courts but all communities and cities started to build more tennis courts and that’s how many kids started.

My Dad played a little bit, he used to play a lot of table tennis when he was younger but when I was born he switched to tennis and played with friends a few times a week. That’s how I started, I followed him to the courts at 4 or 5 years old and straightaway I really liked it.

As a kid I did many different types of sports, I played ice hockey, soccer, handball but I liked tennis way more than the other sports. I think it’s because tennis was the only individual sport I did and individual sports suit my personality better than the other sports.

Saqib: As you said, a lot of indoor courts growing up and you had a pretty good game indoors; making it to the World Tour Finals Semi-Finals. So this conversation is pretty rich from my perspective I have a lot of questions and no real agenda. So let’s talk about indoor tennis…

Do you feel that that the tennis calendar, of which you were a part of not so long ago, and more specifically the indoor season, is becoming a grind by the time by the time players arrive for the indoor swing from Asia?

You don’t see a lot of competitive matches, the World Tour Finals concluded two weeks ago and there were a lot of one-sided matches. Whereas back in the day with Becker, Sampras, Ivanesavic, Krajicek the indoor season seemed to have some meaning; the race for London, Germany or Sydney.

It used to be intense, but now the top players have qualified, what I’m trying to say is; the field is very lopsided. Federer and Djokovic come in looking fresh but the rest of field looks pretty fatigued. Cilic, for example, hasn’t got a great record. So what is happening there? Is there a problem with fatigue at the end of the season?

Soderling: Yes of course. When I was playing I thought the season is way too long, there’s basically no offseason at all.

You talk about Cilic for example, he played the World Tour Finals, then he had to play the Davis Cup which means he can take 1-week rest maximum then he needs to start training again. That’s the reason we see so many injuries in tennis today especially with the top guys who win a lot of matches.

It’s difficult but I think tennis needs to make a change, if you look at other sports like soccer, football, ice hockey whatever they have a much longer offseason where they can rest and recover then prepare and train for the upcoming season. In tennis, we don’t really have that and I think that’s tough.

I think not only the players would benefit from a longer off-season but also the spectators will get to see the top players more often and performing better when they are playing. You see the top players like Nadal, Federer and even Djokovic they play fewer tournaments to try to prolong their careers. When they go to tournaments, they are 100% ready and that’s when you see the best tennis.

Saqib: Do you think a players union is the answer? This has been doing the rounds since the players meeting in Australia this year.

Soderling: Yes I think that could be one of the answers. It’s not easy, the top players are trying to prolong their careers by playing fewer tournaments and the ones that suffer are the smaller tournaments, the ATP 250 tournaments.

I worked myself as a tournament director at Stockholm, and the top players don’t want to play the 250 tournaments. They want to focus on the big tournaments. It’s so difficult to get a top player these days to a 250 tournament, you have to pay a lot of money in appearance fees, which is difficult for a small tournament as many of them are struggling financially.

If you look at the bigger tournaments, Grand Slams, Masters 1000’s they are doing extremely well. There is also so many smaller tournaments, two, three a week and I think for sure that would help to create a schedule where there are fewer tournaments and a longer offseason. I think everyone would be winners in the end.

It’s not easy to get rid of some of the smaller tournaments but in the long run, something has to be done, to help the players and help the sport in general.

Saqib: Interesting, I was going to bring in the tournament director part a little later but it’s a good segway. I have a couple of questions in mind. You were a player not so long ago, let’s focus on Stockholm your home tournament.

When you played there you were one of the top attractions, and then you went on to be the director at that tournament until 2017. So just compare the roles, do players request night matches at indoor tournaments even when conditions aren’t a factor?

Soderling: I would say it’s a bit different to outdoor tennis. Some players like to play during the day, some like to play in the evening.

When I worked in Stockholm, since you play throughout the whole week it’s difficult to get the bigger crowds during the day matches at smaller tournaments. Most of the people go to work and don’t finish until 5 so we always try to put the top players in the night session. Here in Stockholm, for example, the first match is at 6.30pm then a match followed by that. That’s of course when you get the most people and you try to put on the top-ranked players.

Saqib: Ok very good response and I have a follow-up question; as a director when you did this, you land a top player. Who is determining the schedule? A bunch of top players want night session but is it TV demand, audience? What makes the final schedule? How much weight is given to TV, or for example what Federer or Djokovic wants? How do you balance it?

Soderling: Yes, sometimes you know within indoor tournaments you have the TV. They have a lot of power, they pay a lot of money for the rights and you have to think about what they want. But also at the same time, they want it at the best times, which during the week is in the evening.

For indoor tournaments it’s a bit different, it’s slightly easier as the conditions are consistent regardless if you play morning, afternoon or evening. Compared to outdoors the temperature the same. Of course, smaller arena’s do get warmer inside when they are packed with spectators.

Most of the time for me scheduling wasn’t a problem. The problem I had was when players played singles and doubles in the same tournament and you have to try to adapt the schedule. You tend to play the singles before the doubles so it can be difficult especially early in the week when there is more matches.

Saqib: I think indoor tennis is different in demands due to the conditions not playing a factor. But let me ask you a top player question. 

When you entered these events. I’m sure everyone is saying they are looking at the draw but the goal is to win. So is it an advantage or a disadvantage, for example, say if the final is 7 pm.  As a player you keep that in mind, so would you rather be playing all matches in the run-up around 7 pm so you have good recovery time? If you have a late night semi-final and the final is at 1 pm, then you have less time. Are you requesting the scheduling those things in mind?

Soderling: Of course, if a player plays a first-round match on Monday or Tuesday evening, you almost never put them early the next day. If a player starts in the evening and wins, you try to keep them at the same time for the next matches.

This is a problem in Stockholm because you have night sessions until Saturday, but you don’t want a night final on Sunday as people have work the next day. So you try to put it at 1, 2 or 3 pm and not too late.

Then you always have the problem again, if you win a night session and are still in singles and doubles you have to play singles before doubles. So you will be playing earlier next day so you need time to rest. So that’s when it creates scheduling problems for a tournament director.

Saqib: At that point, you will move the doubles back. Singles is tied to TV timing so you can’t move that? That’s the logical approach?

Soderling: Yes, from my approach it’s better to put the doubles before the singles final. It’s better as many people leave after the singles final. But of course when it’s the same player in both, you have to play the singles first. The players want to play that first.

Saqib: Ok let’s talk about some current topics. You gave a lot of information on the mindset of a former player turned tournament director.  Let’s look at Roger Federer, we know he’s important, global superstar and well received in all sports. His name has been doing the rounds due to the Laver Cup conflict with the Australian Open and night sessions.

We have talked a lot about this; some people say it’s a business, others say he is getting clear preference. Numbers don’t lie, he played a lot of night matches in Australia.

Another school of thought is that he’s a close to retirement so tournament directors might put him on the there for maximum ratings. But other top players like Djokovic, Nadal etc. sometimes don’t get the night match.

Is that fair game to you both as a player and a tournament director? What is the balancing act here? Should the tournament director be more transparent?

Soderling: Yeah I think it’s normal as a tournament director you need the top players, they do so much for the tournament and the majority of the fans go to watch the top players. That’s just how it is.

As a tournament director, you have to think like a business and do the best for the tournament. I think the top players do get a lot more things. I would say they take better care of top players than the lower ranked players. More demands, they even request the speed of the surface. The top player can even demand what type of surface he wants at smaller tournaments.

For the smaller tournaments, you almost have to do everything for the top players to make them feel special. That increases the chances of that player coming back again next year.

Saqib: Interesting, we know the former tournament director at Bercy, mentioned in a French Newspaper that Roger Federer did suggest changing the tournament surface. Of course, his name is out there, but is this a common request besides Federer? Do agents ask for types of surfaces?

Soderling: Yes, I would say so. Many of the top players have requests for the type of surface they want and sometimes the tournament can’t meet the request but in many cases, they can. They try to do everything they can to get the top players.

They need those players to make it successful financially. It’s even harder with players playing less tournaments now. I think Nadal only played 9 or 10 tournaments this year, Roger skipped clay. Everything is 100% focussed on the Masters and Grand Slams.

Saqib: So how democratic is the process for lesser ranked players like a Gulbis or a Melzer. If they won a tournament the week before and they say can I have a Tuesday night session? How accommodating are tournaments?

Soderling: Yeah of course, as a tournament you are trying to please everybody. You want everyone to be happy. Let’s say if a lower ranked player had a final, you would try to do everything to give him a few days rest and try to give him a Tuesday or even a Wednesday start. But it’s not easy, it’s a constant struggle.

Saqib: So last question on this topic then we move onto your playing days. We talked about appearance fees, and every tournament has its own bucket. How is that tied to the financial health of the tournament?

First, the goal is to land a Federer, Nadal, Djokovic or a Murray. I’m sure these guys don’t come cheap so when you get these guys, how does that pay you back financially? Do TV rights depend on if you get a big name, so they pay more?

Soderling: I think Roger played Stockholm in 2010, I was not working but playing myself. But from what I heard they had to pay him a lot of money. I think they went to the existing sponsors and said we have a chance to get Roger and we need more money. That’s how they got him here.

The stadium here in Stockholm, it’s the only indoor tournament where you play in an existing tennis club, the capacity is only 3 or 4 thousand spectators. When Roger came we could have sold twice as many tickets but it wasn’t possible. And you have already got the TV deal in place, so they aren’t willing to pay more at a later date.

So it’s good to have him here, but it’s difficult to get that money back. I’m not sure if it was profitable that year.

Saqib: Ok let’s switch now to your tennis. Has it gotten easier to talk about this stuff? When you see guys like Wawrinka and Cilic who have broken through and have won Slams? I know your career did not end on the terms you wanted. Has it become easier?

Soderling: Yeah now it’s easier. Now the time has passed it’s got easier. When I first stopped I thought about it a lot when I saw players like Cilic, Nishikori breaking through but I had a winning record against a lot of those guys. Then a few years later you see them winning slams so it’s difficult to not think about what would have happened had I still being able to play.

For so many years, the top 10 was the same players. Almost exactly the same from when I was playing to now. That also shows what an era it has been. 3 of the best players of the history that was really difficult for all the other players from 4 to 15 in the world.

I always say that those 3 players did so much for the sport. In one way it was so good, but it was tough, at one time every slam went to them.

Saqib: That happened this year!

Soderling: Ha, yeah that just shows how good they are even when they are over 30 years old. It’s amazing to see.

Saqib: Let’s talk about Magnus Norman. You have worked with him. Stan Wawrinka has now won 3 majors. Did you see Stan becoming this type of a champion? I remember watching you play him in 2006 at Flushing Meadows. Magnus gets a lot of credit, he must have done a tremendous job, can you talk a bit about his coaching style?

Soderling: I think Wawrinka when he started with Magnus he was in a similar situation to me. Many times I could beat top players in smaller tournaments but I just couldn’t do it regularly.

Magnus helped me a lot, I wouldn’t say I was a better tennis player when I was in the top 5 compared to top 20, shot by shot or stroke by stroke. But he helped me a lot mentally. He made me understand what it takes to be a top player. 

I’m not sure how he worked with Stan as you said, but obviously, they had a tremendously good partnership. Magnus is a really good coach to be able to get 100% out of the player, he finds those small details especially mentally. That can change a good player to a top player.

Saqib: When you were coaching one of the Ymer brothers. Did you take some of the traits Magnus showed you? Or was it all Soderling?

Soderling:  I was just trying to take my own experience from the 12 years I played on tour. Every player is different, Elias is in a different situation to when I started to work with Magnus.

When we started, Elias was 300 in the world, when I started with Magnus I was 15-20 in the world. So the situation was different. I have been in Elias’s situation playing Futures and Challengers tournament and I tried to take my own experience and I saw a lot of this in Elias that I could see in myself when I was 21, 22 years old. It’s very similar.

I think that’s why many players now hire former or former top players as a coach. For me working with Magnus it was nice to have someone to talk to about how I feel and know he had been in the same situation as I was. For some reason it felt easier to talk to someone who I knew understood what I was talking about. He could share what he did, and what he tried to change.

Saqib: Of course we all know your big 2009 win at Roland Garros. You’re part of a two-man club of players who beat Nadal at Roland Garros. But let me ask you about 2010, you beat Federer the defending champion.

Historically even before you beat Nadal, you had played Nadal quite tough, but Federer’s game gave you more problems. How big was that when you beat him on that rainy Wednesday?

Soderling: That was great, but what I’m more proud of me making the final for the second year in a row. To do it once was great, from almost nowhere, I was around 20 in the world. I hadn’t been past the 4th round in a Grand Slam. But I’m even more proud I managed to do the same the year after.

It’s difficult to compare matches like you said I always had more troubles playing Roger. I wouldn’t say Roger is a better player than Rafa but they have different game styles and I would say Roger’s game style, or rather I would say Rafa’s game style suited me better than Roger’s.

I played many times against Rafa, I won some, I lost some. But many times getting off the court even if I lost the match, I could feel I still played pretty well today. But against Roger but there were not many matches that I felt I played well. I realised that’s because his game style didn’t suit my game style at all.

He’s an extremely good player but he mixes up his game a lot and a lot of times he made me play worse than I would have done against another player. That’s why it was so difficult for me to play against him. So beating him in the Quarter Finals was amazing. I would say I played two extremely good matches to beat Rafa in 2009 and Roger in 2010, but I would say I played even a bit better against Roger.

It was different going in against Rafa, it wasn’t easy but it was a nice feeling. It was the 4th round, and I felt that nobody in the whole world was expecting me to win the match. I felt I could play my game and not have any expectations at all for myself, or from anyone else.

Actually going into that match I felt pretty good. I knew I was playing well for the last couple of weeks on clay. I lost to Nadal a few weeks before, the scoreline was easy but I felt it was a pretty tough match. It might sound strange he beat me 6-1 6-0 or something, he killed me score wise but I really felt after that match I wasn’t far off, there were so many tough games.

Maybe in Paris, I played a little bit better, maybe he played 5% worse than he did in Rome. The margins are so small. That was I really like about tennis, every match is a new match, the conditions are different. If one player wakes up in the morning and has an extremely good day he can beat almost anyone.

Saqib: Right now the climate in tennis looks like Novak Djokovic is back and the man to beat at every tournament he enters. He’s won almost everything last year. Do you see anyone challenging him or do you see a Djokovic dominating this coming season?

Soderling: If he continues to play the way he played for the last 6 months he’s going to be extremely difficult to beat. Roger is not playing as well right now, or I would say he didn’t play as well this year as he did in 2017. Last year coming back coming back from injury he played extremely well.

Now Novak is playing better but I wouldn’t be surprised if we talk again at the end of next year and we see those guys being the top 3 in the world again which is crazy. Roger is turning 38, he’s nearly 40 and both Novak & Rafa are well over 30. So it just shows how good they are, but it’s also nice to see some of the young players are starting to make an impact.

The way Zverev played in London was great. I was really surprised he beat Noval but the way he played, on that day, he was just better than Novak and that doesn’t happen very often. It’s also nice to see Coric, Khachanov and that’s exactly what tennis needs.

We had unbelievable players with Federer, Rafa and Djokovic who have been great ambassadors and they are going to play a few more years if they stay injury free but sooner or later they will retire and it’s a challenge for the sport to get new players coming up and make new profiles.

Saqib: Is there anyone in the new generation you would like to coach?

Yes, of course, coaching Elias for a year was a nice time and I enjoyed it a lot. I always say that being a coach is the closest you can get to playing. For the first time in many years, I got those feelings back, I felt a bit nervous.

Sometimes I was even more nervous watching, when you are on court you can at least do something yourself. When you are a coach all you can is sit and watch.

The only reason we stopped is I have two small kids, and I was travelling for 25-30 weeks. And I was working with RS Tennis, so for 1 year, I was almost away every week. But in the future, I’m interested in coaching.

Saqib: What have you been up to as a businessman?

Soderling: 5 years ago I had been working as a tournament director, but I felt that I wasn’t as close to tennis as I wanted to be.

As a player, I was really picky about equipment and I had an idea, why not try to develop a tennis ball I really like that I can put my name to. And I can be proud of calling it a high-quality ball.

It started as a fun project, no plans other than trying to see if I could do it myself. After a while, I started to hand it out to friends, and to players and the feedback I got was great,. Almost everyone said this is a great ball. So I started a business, it’s really fun and that’s where I spend most of my time now.  We have a bigger brand now, we do strings and grips etc. I’m happy that I have this I really enjoy it.

Which bit did you guys find interesting? Any questions you would have asked Soderling that weren’t asked here? As always let me know in the comments.

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