On a Saturday morning in Stockholm, Robin Soderling is taking the dog for a walk.
"Can you hold on for a second, please?" Soderling asks over the telephone. "A car is coming, and I have no leash."
He and longtime partner Jenni Mostrom became parents for the first time six weeks ago, and together they live in a newly purchased apartment. Given Soderling's career earnings of more than $10 million, money isn't an issue.
It all seems so perfect, and Soderling knows he has it good.
But, for the 28-year-old, one thing is missing: a return to the tennis court. For the past year and a half, the two-time French Open finalist has been out of the game because of mononucleosis. Roger Federer and Andy Roddick had milder cases of the viral illness, but Soderling, like Mario Ancic, wasn't as fortunate.
As 2013 approaches, Soderling -- unranked after occupying the fifth spot when his hiatus began -- doesn't know whether he will ever play professionally again. At times, the uncertainty is almost unbearable.
"The hope, the hopelessness, then the hope again, then the hopelessness -- that really kills me," Soderling said. "I feel really good, then I start to practice, and then I think maybe in a couple of months I can come back and I really believe it. Then I do a bit too much and wake up one morning not feeling well again."
The latest setback occurred recently.
Soderling was buoyed because he was able to train every other day for an hour. But instead of gradually picking up the pace, a cold and flu meant he had to stop again. He rested for 2½ weeks before gently resuming training.
"In the past couple of months, I had my best weeks and days, which gives me the hope, but I get setbacks and feel worse again," Soderling said. "Overall, it's getting better, but I'm not as desperate to come back anymore tomorrow. I will give it a shot, of course, but I learned to live with the thought that maybe it will not be possible. Whatever happens, I will feel I did all I could."
Soderling has consulted numerous doctors, even flying to California in the spring for another expert opinion. Earlier tests revealed that his thyroid wasn't functioning properly, leading to extreme fatigue. Now the results are improved, but the Swede isn't 100 percent.
"In some people, mono can affect them for a long period of time," Paul Chatrath, a London-based ENT consultant and surgeon who has treated mono patients, said in a telephone interview. "Others seem to get rid of it more quickly. It is thought to be due in part to the severity of the initial infection and also to do with the individual person's own immune system and the ability to fight it off from the first attack."
Soderling thinks about the summer of 2011 and wonders whether pausing before or after the French Open would have limited the damage. At Roland Garros, where Soderling and his heavy forehand ended Rafael Nadal's reign in 2009 and snapped Federer's semifinal streak at majors a year later, he was tired in the mornings and after short practice sessions.
He managed to reach the quarterfinals, losing to Nadal, who has been sidelined himself for five months with a knee injury. Bernard Tomic beat Soderling in the third round at Wimbledon.
"Wimbledon was not good at all," Soderling said. "I was vomiting in the morning, and I had a fever. I don't know why I played. But then it's Wimbledon and you want to play, and that's what you've done your whole life: You've pushed away your feelings of tiredness and tried harder."
As a clay-court tournament approached in Bastad, Sweden, Soderling said he felt "dead" and considered pulling out. Suddenly, there was an upturn in his health; he competed and went on to win the title, dropping only 13 games in four matches.
"I played, and played really well, but I felt something wasn't right," he said. "A few days later, for the first time, I got really, really sick."
His extended break was under way.
For Fredrik Rosengren, Soderling's most recent coach, it was a case of deja vu. He was Ancic's coach when the Croatian was stricken in 2007. Despite reappearing on the tour, Ancic was never the same and retired at the age of 26.
"The only thing I can be is support," Rosengren, who last week accepted an offer to become Sweden's Davis Cup captain with Soderling's blessing, said in a telephone interview. "I can support him every day to tell him that tennis is not as important as his health. This is the only thing that counts in life; tennis is the second thing here.
"At the same time, I know that he wants to come back and play tennis. He loves the lifestyle, the travel. He actually said to me when we were walking in the streets of Stockholm during [October's] Stockholm Open: 'It would have been so nice to play [at the stadium] tonight.'"
Soderling said it's not as painful to watch tennis on television now as it was months ago, and the arrival of daughter Olivia has altered his perspective.
Soderling was taking a cooking course when Jenni, who was about a week past the original due date, called and told him to get home.
The moment had come.
Olivia, according to her dad, sleeps through the night -- "We've been lucky," Soderling said. With a slight chuckle, Soderling admits to changing diapers "5 to 10 percent" of the time.
"For the first time in my life, I'm not putting myself first, which is a very strange feeling," Soderling said. "It's also nice. All my life, I've been focusing on tennis, training, getting results. Jenni and I wanted to have kids pretty early, but we waited. We always thought it was better in the future. Now I don't understand why we ever waited."
The wait for Soderling's return to tennis continues.
"I don't want my career to be finished yet," he said. "I feel I have at least five more years in me. But I still have a lot of things to be thankful for. The [mono] could have happened when I was 18 or 20. I was 27. Up to now, I've had a good career."