After watching Robin Soderling’s yet another unceremonious exit from the Australian Open (he lost in the opening round last year), I have finally figured out why these courts do not suit this big man. The courts here are fast enough that they give his opponent a good chance to make him run around the court, and expose his fragile movement, and they are slow enough to not provide Soderling with a good enough penetration. Moreover, the relatively low bounce of these courts (compared to the French) do not suit Soderling at all.
Soderling thrives on extremes. The extremely slow conditions at Paris with bounce high enough to allow him to generate his own pace, or the extremely fast conditions of indoors to enable him to hit the first strike. He does not have a good transition game to thrive on these courts. The other stalwart of Melbourne, Andre Agassi, didn’t have that either, but he had the great return of serve, and ability to take the ball ridiculously early to make him a legend at these medium paced courts (in addition to his four titles at Australia, he has also won Miami six times, a record). Soderling has neither.
His opponent, the 22 year old Alexandr Dolgopolov utilized his weaknesses efficiently. Dolgopolov. This was the first time I watched this kid play, and I already like him—especially his last name. I said his name aloud quite a few times during this match, and he gave me enough reason to cheer for him.
In some ways, it is Dolgopolov, rather than Grigor Dimitrov, who reminds me of Roger Federer. He may not have Federer’s aesthetic one handed backhand, but he possesses two of the most important strengths of Federer—the efficient playing style (he hardly looked tired during the match even though this was his second consecutive five setter), and effortless movement around the court. Plus he has a variety of ground strokes to easily trouble Soderling.
He intelligently used his slice forehands to easily return Soderling’s big serves, and robbed him of pace with continual use of slices. When they did not seem to work, he was equally comfortable at being aggressive with his two hander, and he always had the option of running his opponent wide off court with his unique jumping top spin forehand which has enough depth and angle to trouble even the best movers in the game—Soderling was a gimme. In the third set, he was so comfortable with Soderling’s game, that he was routinely stranding Soderling by placing one drop shot after other. Soderling, who normally does not show any emotions on court other than determined fist pumps at his camp, was literally screaming in frustration.
As I said before, his game revolves around efficiency. Just like Federer, he looks like a ballet dancer on court, albeit of a different style. His inexperience showed in the fourth set as he started sensing the finish line after breaking Soderling thrice in the third set, but quickly regrouped in the decider to win the fifth set very comfortably.
This is his first Grand Slam quarterfinal, and his next test will be sterner. Murray has dropped just 22 games so far in the tournament, and will like Dolgopolov’s unorthodox game. He moves far better than Soderling, and has many dimensions in his game which would force Dolgopolov to think over his strategy mid way during the match. Dolgopolov just achieved his greatest victory in a short career so far, but as it is for any youngster, the road only gets tougher. Can he be this year’s dark horse at Melbourne? I would definitely be waiting for that to happen.