Most people love Paris in the spring and Robin Soderling is certainly no exception. The Swede made light work of Gilles Simon on Monday, winning 6-2, 6-3, 7-6(5) to set up a third Roland Garros battle with Rafael Nadal in as many years. The no.5 seed was in total control until he required treatment for blisters midway through the third set, and even then still had enough in the tank to ward off a Simon comeback.
On a day when Gael Monfils joined Marion Bartoli in the quarter-finals, Simon was looking to become the third French musketeer. His careful, thoughtful, almost introspective game is suited to clay, but when he fails to execute, that introspection gives way to self-doubt. Today, with his countryfolk packing Philippe Chatrier court, Simon struggled as much with himself as with his opponent.
The Frenchman took 10 minutes to settle by which time Soderling had raced into a 4-0 lead, and though the rest of the set was well balanced that was of no use to a man chasing two breaks just to pull level. The no.18 seed made a much better fist of the second until a disputed call threw him back out of kilter, chair umpire Enric Molina rightly refusing to replay a point following a late Simon challenge. Simon continued to argue the call during the change-over, then promptly had his service broken. Soderling bagged the set 6-3 to lead by two.
The third set saw much of the same, the only respite for the embattled Simon coming when Soderling had treatment for blisters on his left hand. The lofty Swede then began to falter and seemed less than comfortable on his (two-handed and thus blister-hampered) backhand. He ramped up his big service and forehands to save three break points but the fourth was the charm and 'Gillou' was back in the hunt at 3-4.
Robin began to double-fault, barely able to find the service box and then when he did, erring wide on both wings. He hit twice as many unforced errors in the third set as in the first two, but found just enough to hold service twice and then watch as Simon went from 40-15 to match point down at 5-6 as he netted three in a row, questioning himself audibly after every lapse.
The Frenchman saved three match points despite "not hitting a decent shot all day" by his own (mid-match) admission, but Soderling took the tie-break 7-5, raising his arms aloft at the second time of asking after the match had one final twist, the chair umpire coming down and over-ruling a call on match point with Soderling already at the net waiting to shake hands.
Victory over Simon came two years to the day after Soderling shocked the tennis world by inflicting the first ever Roland Garros defeat on Rafael Nadal. He now has the very same mountain to climb in two days' time, but this time around the Majorcan says that he is not confident. "I am not playing enough well to win this tournament at the day of today - that's the truth," said the world no.1 after his straight-sets win over Ivan Ljubicic.
"The thing is you have to be a realist, and I'm not playing enough well to win. We will see after tomorrow if I am ready to play at this level. I'm going to try, but I won five times already here and I don't have an obligation to win six."
Mind games on the part of the matador from Manacor? Perhaps, but the first thing Soderling will be worrying about are his blistered fingers. If they hold up we could be in for a battle royal on Wednesday.