Swedish Tennis Star Robin Söderling’s Next ChapterSeptember 28, 2017
The New York Times called it “one of the biggest upsets in the upset-filled history of tennis.” According to The Telegraph, “The ‘impossible’ happened on the red clay of Court Philippe Chatrier.” Tennis magazine reported: “If you were playing tennis that day, you probably remember it well: When the news came across, the earth shook a little at clubs and parks all over the world. Those were the aftershocks from Paris.” Robin Söderling remembers that day in May 2009 well.
“I remember it all,” Söderling said.
In what many believe is the greatest upset in tennis history, Söderling, a Swede seeded 23rd, became the first to upend Rafael Nadal at the French Open. Nadal had won four straight titles at Roland Garros, building a 31-0 record, before Söderling stunned the tennis world with a 6-2, 6-7 (2), 6-4, 7-6 (2) win in the fourth round on May 31. Nadal would go on to win 39 straight matches – and five more titles – before losing at the French Open again in 2015.
“I tried to manipulate myself that I was the favorite since I knew that no one on the planet thought I had a chance,” Söderling said. “And if no one else believed it, I felt that I had at least to believe it myself.”
Söderling reached the French Open final, losing to Roger Federer, whom he describes playing as like “I was playing on ice.” The next year, he ended another streak by snapping Federer’s run of 23 straight Grand Slam semifinal appearances en route to the final, where Nadal exacted revenge with a straight-set win. Söderling was on the rise and reached No. 4 in the ATP ratings that year, yet another Swedish star following the likes of Borg, Edberg and Wilander.
A year later, at the age of 26, Söderling contracted mononucleosis, which ultimately ended his career despite hopes of returning to the tour for a handful of years. As his comeback stalled, Söderling started RS Tennis in 2013 and unveiled a new tennis ball.
With his on-court career cut short, Söderling, now 33, has seen his off-court career take off. RS Tennis has an array of tennis accessories, and its tennis balls are used in several ATP World Tour events, including the Stockholm Open.
Söderling took time out to chat with us about that magical day in Paris, his early retirement, his blossoming business and his new title: coach.
You’ve been busy off the court building your business, but you also recently added another title – coach. How did that come about, and what made you decide to coach Swede Elias Ymer?
I actually had no plans of coaching and already declined some offers from really good established tour players. Then Elias personally called me during the spring, and with a very humble approach, asked for my help and asked if I could come watch him for a practice and give some tips. I felt from the first hour that we connected well and that I saw things in his game that I believed that I can help him to improve. And then that led to our cooperation.
You had several coaches through the years. How important is a coach in tennis, and what can you say will be your approach to coaching?
Coaching is of course important, but nothing is more important than your own determination and how much you are willing to work and sacrifice to become a better player. My approach is that I am very calm as a coach. I listen a lot, and I am very clear with how I want tennis to be played to have a chance to make a living out of it. The only thing that makes me act tough is if a player I work with doesn’t try his or her best both on practice and in a match.
Sweden’s recent history of struggles on the world’s men’s tennis stage, like the United States’, has been documented. What, if anything, has changed with tennis in Sweden? Does anything need to change for Elias or other young players to see the success that you and others before you saw?
The absolute No. 1 reason is that for a small country like Sweden with a limited number of kids with sports/athletic potential, we are dependent on having idols and role models that the kids want to be like. Since there have been many years without a star on TV and in newspapers that the kids watch, kids tend to choose other sports. But we have many young juniors with great potential and already have made good international results, so I am positive.
Can you take us back to when you initially got sick? What was the expectation about your return, or did you know early on that it could be something that could threaten your career?
From the start, I couldn’t even think about anything else than surviving. I was stuck in bed 24/7 almost the full first year. When I felt a bit better, I started to try to come back, but every time I got setbacks that brought me back to bed, and I became very sick again. I tried so many times, every time too early, and finally I understood that I will never be able to make it back to where I was.
When did it set in that the illness might force your retirement, and how difficult was it to walk away when you did?
I didn’t want to accept it, but the strange thing is that when I, a couple of years back, took the decision and make the retirement official, then my body started to heal in a much more effective way. It was the toughest decision of my life, but honestly, I had no option since my body never again allowed me to push limits needed to work as a professional athlete.
Any chance you’ll try to make a comeback?
I think it´s too late now. I just turned 33 and even though I think about it a lot and wish I could end my career when I decided it myself, I have learned to accept it.
You started playing tennis at an early age. Did you play any other sports? Why tennis, and who were some of your favorites growing up?
I played all different sports such as soccer, ice hockey, handball…but tennis always was my favorite. I think it was because it is an individual sport, and even if I lost, I always found it more fair that I could only blame myself and same thing with wins. It was only up to me, and that attracted me more. Thomas Enqvist was my biggest idol when I was growing up.
What do you remember most from your epic win over Nadal at the French Open? And what about that year’s final against Federer?
I remember it all…already from just minutes after the third-round win and how I immediately started to focus on the next task that was Rafa. I really felt after a few great weeks of tennis that I could threaten him with my game. I tried to manipulate myself that I was the favorite since I knew that no one on the planet thought I had a chance. And if no one else believed it, I felt that I had at least to believe it myself. The start of the match was the key, and I managed to stay very focused the whole match, and I didn’t think about the result one single time until I was up 6-2, I think in the fourth-set tiebreaker. When I understood that I was only a point away I lost the focus and the nervousness came over me in a second. If he would have turned that tiebreak around, I would most probably have lost the match. I managed to play another couple of good matches, and I think I wasn’t mentally ready to play Roger in a Grand Slam final. I was really tired after six tough matches, and mentally it was a mountain to climb that I didn’t manage to handle. Roger was too good that day (as always, every day I played him).
Who was tougher for you, Nadal on clay or Federer on grass?
Federer was always tougher to play for me. Rafa is together with Roger the greatest of all time and is of course almost as tough, but with Rafa I always felt that even if I lose, I will at least be able to play a good match. Against Roger, I felt like I was playing on ice. His variations, his way of making the opponent never know where the ball will go was a nightmare. He is the best player I have ever played on all surfaces. He plays extremely fast and with an ability to mix up his game like no one else.
Reaching No. 4 in the world is an amazing feat. Looking back, what – other than getting sick – what would you change about your career? What would Robin the entrepreneur tell Robin the player?
I would have told him to try to separate things in life much more. Like we talk about in the business: work-life balance. I was too focused on tennis all the time. I let my body rest sometimes, but I never let my mind rest. The stress of never thinking about anything else than the next practice or the next match crushed my system. Not only my body, but also my mind, finally got totally burned out. If I could change one thing, that would have been to focus on some other things I like off-court, like fishing, playing some golf or reading more books to change the focus of my mind.
You launched RS Tennis in 2013 while you were sick and still hoping to return. What was the spark that led you to start the business?
I felt better at least so that I could start to live a normal life without tough physical training, and I started to talk to my team what to do. I wanted to do something with tennis, and I often got the question from journalists which ball I liked most on tour. I have always been picky with material and very interested, and I asked my manager if he thought it was a good idea to try to develop my own tennis ball, just for fun. He said “NO” and my reply was immediately “OK, let’s do it.”
It took over a year, and if I knew now how much work it was, I wouldn’t have done it, but I am really happy I followed my gut feel. When I started to hand out the tennis balls to friends and people in my network, the response was amazing. And within a few months, everybody locally started to ask for more, and the rumor was spread and newspapers and magazines from all over the world got in contact with us. I had in a very short period of time a decision to make, whether I should keep it as a hobby or go for it more seriously. I decided to bring in a very tight team with people that I trust with great business skills, and we went for it.
It has been a very successful journey so far where we have launched RS Tennis in more than 50 countries. The ball is used at some events on the ATP World Tour, and I have also developed really good racket strings that are used around the globe and growing. I have also developed some great overgrips and other accessories. We have also focused a lot on the design and branding, and I think we are very different in the branding than other companies within the tennis industry. We aim to bring the Scandinavian heritage of design and style into our look and feel.
The company has grown, both in what it offers and where it sells its products. Describe the growth over the past few years and your goals for the future.
As I described, we have grown very fast and with good profitability. The challenge is of course to have a decent cash flow in a situation where you grow so fast…Our goals for the future are to make sure that RS tennis balls, strings and grips will be available in all markets where tennis is big and to continue to only launch products that are developed personally by me. We will focus on the branding strategy and to keep the look and feel very attractive and to be as close to our end consumers as possible. We will also focus to continue to grow our string business with U.S. college tennis. We already have more than 40 college teams that are playing with the RS strings. Another focus is to look for the best and most established distributors locally to represent RS Tennis in their countries. But first and foremost, our products always will be in the premium segment in terms of quality and playability. It is OK if someone says that the balls, strings or grips don’t fit their game, but I will never allow that players will say that RS doesn’t have premium quality.
Convince us…what makes RS Tennis Balls the balls we should use?
It is very simple. The RS Black Edition ball is made of the most exclusive materials, including a very nice felt. It plays slightly slower than average, which makes the rallies and the tennis include more strokes. You will feel more control, and the ball keeps the quality very, very good for being a competition tennis ball. Those are the basic elements why players around the world say that RS Black Edition is the best ball ever made. They feel they improve their game because they have better control. You will also notice that the ball doesn’t “fly from the start” that you normally feel with many other tennis balls. To please the players that like a faster game, I will launch another ball that I worked with for two years, the RS Tour Edition. It has the same quality and components but plays a bit faster. So now, no one can say that one of the RS tennis balls doesn’t fit their game.
How has your tennis career influenced your business career?
In many ways, but the absolute outstanding thing that I brought is the understanding that you will not reach anywhere without putting all your passion and dedication with hard work into it. We have great products, great branding and my experience and brand as a base. Will that make us successful? NO, not if we don’t work harder than the rest and not if we don’t get the customers to understand that we work for them and that we will do anything to care about every single customer or person that connects with RS. The new world is more individual than ever, and if you as a company doesn’t understand that, you will sooner or later be in trouble. Our customers are our heroes, and they deserve to always feel well treated by and happy with RS.