The first round of a Grand Slam is traditionally a cakewalk for seeded players, as they're generally paired with qualifiers, wild cards, and the like. But Robin Soderling — the No. 5 seed and a two-time Slam finalist — found a stubborn challenge in Andreas Haider-Maurer, an unknown qualifier making his Slam debut. Soderling prevailed after five sets, but his struggle has ominous repercussions for the draw, as he was largely considered to be one of the biggest threats to Roger Federer's path to the final.
For the first two sets, it was business as usual for Soderling, who won 7-5, 6-3. In fact, it wasn't until he had the victory nearly in hand — at triple match point in the third, with Haider-Maurer serving — that he stumbled. Soderling wasted the first match point with a shank, the second was erased with a 124 mph serve, and he squandered the last with a lazy return. The set went to a tiebreak, which Haider-Maurer won thanks in part to some more careless play from Soderling. (Still, credit must be given to Haider-Maurer, who remained remarkably unfazed by his impending doom at triple match point; not even two separate foot faults shook him from successfully holding serve in a must-win game. A certain Williams sister should take note.)
In a blur of double faults and unforced errors, Soderling lost the fourth set as well. In the decider, however, he cleared his head and began playing safer percentage tennis by hitting low-risk shots and waiting for his opponent to flinch first. Haider-Maurer did, and Soderling won, but not without planting some doubts.
There are a lot of expectations riding on Soderling. He ousted Federer from this year's French Open in the quarterfinals (putting an end to Federer's run of consecutive Slam semifinal-or-better appearances), and the stage is set for him to do it again in Flushing with a projected quarterfinal matchup. But, despite Soderling's intelligent inching away from the abyss yesterday, this method of "pushing" will certainly not be good enough to pose a threat to Federer. Even if Soderling does refocus his game, he's starting the tournament at a disadvantage. In all, he was on court for nearly four hours. Federer, by comparison, was off the court in 93 minutes; Roddick, who Soderling could meet in the semifinals, was done and dusted in 102 minutes. If either of those potential matches becomes a battle of fitness, the extra hours will haunt Soderling.
But before he gets there, he'll have to face someone who can serve even bigger than Haider-Maurer did in the clutch. Flushing favorite Taylor Dent is up next; he has clocked serves up to 148 mph. Soderling has some thinking to do before the second round.
(Ed. Note: Venus Williams beat Roberta Vinci 6-4, 6-1, yesterday as well, and this mention now justifies our using the photo of her for this post, which we already had queued up for this posting. Who wants to look at Robin Soderling anyway?)