Soderling to face Gonzalez in French Open semis

When the French Open ends, Robin Soderling wants to be remembered for more than merely ending Rafael Nadal's four-year reign.

updated: June 03, 2009 13:07 IST
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When the French Open ends, Robin Soderling wants to be remembered for more than merely ending Rafael Nadal's four-year reign.

Soderling wants to succeed Nadal as champion.

The Swede's improbable run at Roland Garros has reached the semi-finals, and he'll face Fernando Gonzalez on Friday. In 22 Grand Slam tournaments, it's the first time Soderling has advanced beyond the third round.

"I don't want to be too happy, because I have another match coming up," he said.

As an encore to his upset of Nadal, the No. 23-seeded Soderling beat No. 10 Nikolay Davydenko 6-1, 6-3, 6-1. Davydenko twice reached the French Open semifinals and was singled out by Roger Federer as this week's potential champion, but Soderling keeps defying expectations in Paris.

"I always knew that I could play really, really good tennis," the 24-year-old Soderling said.

The Swede has beaten three consecutive players whose best surface is clay _ Davydenko, Nadal and Spaniard David Ferrer. He'll face another experienced clay-courter in the No. 12-seeded Gonzalez, who became the first Chilean since 1960 to reach the Roland Garros semifinals when he beat No. 3 Andy Murray 6-3, 3-6, 6-0, 6-4.

Gonzalez conceded the matchup against Soderling is a surprise.

"Had someone told me I would reach the semifinal of a Grand Slam and I would have to play him, I don't know if I would have believed it," Gonzalez said. "When you say French Open, you think Nadal immediately. But Robin is a great player. I mean, he hit the ball harder than most of the guys. If he's in a good day he doesn't let you play, so it's going to be a really tough match for me."

Gonzalez is 4-3 against Soderling, including 2-0 on clay. Soderling has never won a clay-court title, but he's riding a career-best eight-match winning streak, all on dirt, giving his confidence a boost.

"If you'd ask me like four years ago, I'd say I will never reach a semis in Paris," Soderling said. "But for every year, I think I started to play better and better on clay. Maybe so far I had my best results indoors, but then I think clay is my next-best surface, actually."

Part of the charm at Roland Garros is its tradition for unpredictable outcomes. Before Nadal became the king of clay, the tournament produced plenty of surprise winners.

Five men in the Open era won their first clay-court title in Paris, most recently Gustavo Kuerten in 1997. And whoever wins this year's men's title will be a first-time French Open champion.

The quarterfinals scheduled for Wednesday matched Federer against Frenchman Gael Monfils, and Juan Martin del Potro against Tommy Robredo.

In the women's semifinals Thursday, top-ranked Dinara Safina will face No. 20-seeded Dominika Cibulkova. Safina hopes to reach the final for the third time in the past five major events, while Cibulkova is playing in her first Grand Slam semifinal.

On Tuesday, Cibulkova swept the first 11 games and beat a weary, rusty Maria Sharapova 6-0, 6-2. Safina faced her first tough test in the tournament and rallied past Victoria Azarenka 1-6, 6-4, 6-2.

No comeback was needed by Soderling, who swept the first five games against Davydenko and never let up. Pounding his big serve and forehand, Soderling made it three consecutive wins over players ranked in the top 15.

"I didn't have a very easy draw," he said. "I played three very good clay-court players and I played three very good matches, so of course my confidence is getting better and better."

In the midst of his best Grand Slam showing, Soderling has been swamped with congratulatory text messages, some from people he doesn't know.

"I have no idea how they got my phone number," he said.

And there was a thank-you message from fellow Swede Bjorn Borg, who shares with Nadal the record of four consecutive men's titles at Roland Garros.

"He said, `Congratulations, and thank you for not letting Nadal break my record,'" Soderling said. "It was very big for me to receive an SMS from him. He's maybe the best player of all time."

Soderling would settle for being the best player this week.