ABU DHABI // Robin Soderling believes he now belongs in the same bracket as the world's best players after fighting back from a set down to defeat Roger Federer in the semi-finals of the Capitala World Tennis Championship yesterday. It was a case of lucky number 13 for the Swede as he impressively defeated the world's top-ranked player 6-7 (6-8), 7-6 (7-1), 6-2. The world No 8 had never beaten Federer in 12 previous attempts, but exorcised his demons in front of a sell-out crowd at the Zayed Sports City International Tennis Complex to set up a thrilling final with Rafael Nadal tonight.
Soderling maintains that he learns something new each time he faces the 15-time grand slam winner. Now he has learned he can beat him. "The best way to learn is to play matches against the best," he said. "Roger plays really, really fast and that's what makes it so tough to play against him. But every time we play I feel I can handle his pace a bit better. I've felt that each of the last three or four times we've played. It feels really good to beat him."
Yesterday's match was a tightly contested affair with a sluggish Federer, despite winning the opening set, showing early signs of off-season-induced rustiness with undercooked drop shots and over-hit powerful forehands. Soderling, who defeated Stanislas Wawrinka in straight sets in Thursday's preliminary round, in contrast served strongly and used his dominant double-handed backhand to great effect.
"I always felt I had a chance. It was really hard to lose the first set, but I felt I played well, although far from my best ever tennis," he said. "I stepped up the level of my game a little bit especially in the second and the third set and in the beginning of the third I felt I played a little bit better than Roger. "The win gives me a lot of confidence for the whole year, starting off the year like this is something every player wants to do. I feel like I've beaten all the top guys now and that I belong up there."
"I'd say almost for the whole of last year I won a lot of matches against good players and it gave me confidence and now I started off this year with a very good result, so my confidence is really good and I hope I can continue playing the way I've been doing for a while." That quest begins tonight when he faces the world No 2 Nadal. The Spaniard, whose 2009 season was hindered by recurring knee problems, beat compatriot David Ferrer in straight sets in yesterday's other semi-final. And he is already well aware of his opponent's ability - Nadal has lost his two previous two meetings with Soderling, most notably in the fourth round of the French Open when the Swede ended his 31-match unbeaten run on clay.
"It will be a very difficult match because Robin is playing well and has the ability to win matches on all surfaces. He is always a very tough opponent," said the 23-year-old, who lost to Andy Murray in the final of the annual Abu Dhabi event last year. "His serve is unbelievable and he plays very powerful shots from the baseline on both his forehand and his backhand. He is growing in confidence with every win and is now one of the best players in the world."
Nadal, however, insists he is not looking to avenge his defeat at Roland Garros and is simply concentrating on providing a timely boost ahead of the defence of his Australian Open crown, which starts on January 18. "I don't believe in revenge. Yes, I lost the last two matches, but before that I won many matches," he said. "Every game is a separate game. "This is not an ATP tournament, but we're playing against the best players in the world and every match is important.
"Sure it's good to prepare, but at the same time it's good for confidence and good to play against the best players. "I know if I play my best I will have chances to win and if I don't get the chances I will lose. That's tennis." firstname.lastname@example.org