Before last night's quarterfinal showdown between Roger Federer and Robin Soderling, the Swiss Maestro had begun to show flashes of his former self, no doubt aided by a new relationship with Pete Sampras's former coach. There was a sense, though, that Federer hadn't yet been truly tested by a top player. Soderling, the Swedish No. 5, is exactly the type of flat, big-hitting foe that's handed Federer his greatest losses this season. But despite knocking Federer out in the French Open quarterfinals this spring, Soderling couldn't muster more than a straight-sets loss. In the process, he reaffirmed why Federer, at his best, is so unbeatable: He makes very good players look and feel shamefully inadequate.
Soderling began promisingly enough. He very nearly broke Federer during his first service game, and throughout the match he hit brilliant returns with startling depth that made even the graceful one awkwardly swing at his feet. However, beyond that, Soderling's game lacked conviction, which Federer hungrily preyed upon. Instead of putting volleys away, for example, Soderling hit them too casually. This hesitant execution often gave Federer a lingering look, resulting in an expert topspin lob or unreachable passing shot.
At the end of the third set, however, there was a brief moment of hope that the match could turn competitive. Federer had already pocketed a two-set lead when he played a very sloppy game that allowed Soderling to break. Suddenly, at 5-4, the Swede had the miraculous opportunity to serve for the set. It was strikingly similar to the numerous matches this year when Federer choked away a strong lead. But Soderling was a bundle of nerves and, with a series of forehand errors, he gave the break right back.
It was disappointing to see Soderling fold so easily, but it seemed to prove that Federer is once again in his head. The most curious thing about Federer's earlier lapse this season was not so much his dropped form but that players he normally owned suddenly seemed to come to matches with hope rather than expectations of a foregone conclusion. (It's also worth noting that Federer's serve was at its best last night as well.)
Soderling's failure to hold serve when he saw light suggests that Federer is regaining ground in that crucial department of psychological dominance. He'll never be the completely flawless player he once was, but perhaps he doesn't always need to be when a threat like Soderling is too terrified to capitalize. Last night the Maestro seemed to prove that the U.S. Open's "Darth Federer" is back and ready for his sixth title in Flushing.