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The Transformation of Robin Soderling

1 Aug 2009

The Legg Mason Tennis Classic began today in Washington DC, and I was lucky to get some great footage of Robin Soderling - not only hitting forehands, but also training with coach Magnus Norman. And if you don't know by now, Robin is the guy who, two months ago, pulled off one of tennis' greatest upsets when he took out the seemingly invincible, four time champ Raphael Nadal at the French Open. And then after that stunning upset, Soderling pulled off another miracle, coming back from 1-4 down in the fifth to beat Fernando Gonzalez in the semis. And this stunning run wasn't a one time magic carpet ride. He followed it up with his best result at Wimbledon, getting to the fourth round and losing (once again) to eventual champ Roger Federer. And a week later became the first Swede since his coach Magnus Norman (in 2000) to win the singles title at the Swedish Open.

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Soderling training with Norman.

So just who is Robin Soderling? And how does someone go from chronic underachiever to overachiever in a matter of weeks? To start with, he is apparently one of the (if not the) least liked players on tour. Based on his imitation of Nadal and anecdotes of players who say he has little to say to anyone, it seems that Robin Soderling might not be the underdog we all love to root for. But there is a backstory here that I find quite intriguing: the transforming effect of Magnus Norman. It seems that this former number 2 player in the world just might be the real reason Robin Soderling is a name we now all know. (Click here for this story).

Perhaps even greater than Soderling's defeat of Nadal is the fact that Magnus Norman was able to get inside Soderling's head. Soderling is, by all accounts, a quirky ill tempered loner whose personality, as Norman himself suggested, hurts him more than anyone. Norman was able, somehow, to get inside his psyche and turn it all around. We see these kinds of dramatic transformations in a player's career so rarely (how many fans of Marat Safin desparately wished for just this kind of transformation to occur?), so when they do occur they are all that more remarkable. Wilander suggests that Norman's track record has something to do with it:

"I think part of it is Robin doesn't want to let this guy down," said Wilander, the three-time French Open champion who is now Sweden's Davis Cup captain. "He's maybe thinking, 'Why does he want to coach me? This is a guy who was two in the world and reached the final of the French Open. Why is he with me?' And it's not like Magnus needs the job." - Mats Wilander

You can't argue with Wilander's theory, but it seems that there is something going on here that has less to do with tennis and more to do with the magic that happens when a great teacher comes across just the right student. From wonderful true story films like "Good Will Hunting", "Stand and Deliver", and "Dead Poet's Society" to the late Frank McCourt's Teacher Man, we know just how dramatic and life altering a teacher - student relationship can be. And one reason I think this is the case here comes from a quote from Magnus:

"That's just what he's like," defends Magnus. "He's often got headphones on and stays in his own bubble. Only those who are really close to him know what he's really like. My aim is to get the real Robin out on court. If I could do that it would mean more to me than helping him win a Grand Slam." - NY Times

I think these are pretty profound words that account for much of the Soderling turnaround. Norman has taken a personal interest in Soderling - not as just a tennis player but as a man who hasn't reached his potential. And it's THAT kind of teacher that just might account for the blossoming of one man's career, along with one of the biggest upsets in tennis history.

"Before starting work with Robin, we looked into what he needed to work on. His mental attitude was an obvious priority. So we talked a lot, discussed things. Before, he was like a teenager on court: now he's a man. He became a great warrior with a cool head. That's the thing I'm most proud of." - Magnus Norman


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Soderling's big wiper forehand
helped him de-throne Nadal.

But Magnus Norman might be the bigger reason.

Today was the first day of the tournament, but it's really just the qualies. The big names haven't arrived yet. Roddick, for example, will probably come on Monday or even Tuesday when the late first round matches begin. The only big name I saw today was Rogin Soderling. He was out in the 90 degree heat, running sprints and doing intense step drills with Norman while the qualifiers battled it out on the match courts.

I will be posting some of these drills I taped, along with a lot of great footage of Soderling's beautiful (and powerful) strokes later this week. But I'll end this article by saying that Soderling's newfound maturity and dedication, brought about by Norman, makes him my pick for the title. Let's see if Norman's influence can continue Soderling's dream run and lead him to the trophy on August 9th.

Soderling High Speed Forehand