Soderling beats Federer in four sets

PARIS -- There will be a Grand Slam semifinal without Roger Federer for the first time in six years.

French Open upset specialist Robin Soderling struck again Tuesday, rallying past defending champion Federer in a rainy quarterfinal, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4. That ended Federer's record streak of reaching the semifinals in 23 consecutive major events.

The shocker was the second pulled off by Soderling in as many years at Roland Garros. He ended the reign of four-time champion Rafael Nadal in the fourth round a year ago, clearing the path for Federer to win his first French Open title and complete a career Grand Slam.

Federer beat Soderling in last year's final. Before Tuesday, Federer was 12-0 against the big-swinging Swede, winning 28 of their 30 sets.

But Soderling's recent improvement was evident as he controlled rallies from the baseline with his thunderous strokes. Federer found himself on the defensive and unable to move forward.

"I'm disappointed to a certain degree," Federer said. "I didn't think I played a bad match. He came up with some great tennis. It's much easier to digest this way."

Seeded fifth, Soderling saved a set point in the third when he won a frantic rally and then won the set to take the lead for good shortly after a rain delay of 75 minutes.

"It cannot be much better," Soderling told the crowd after his latest center-court stunner. "It's great to play on this court. It's for sure my favorite Grand Slam."

Soderling's the only player other than Nadal to beat Federer at Roland Garros since 2004. The Swede's opponent Friday will be No. 15 seed Tomas Berdych, who beat No. 11 Mikhail Youzhny 6-3, 6-1, 6-2. Berdych has yet to drop a set in five rounds.

The semifinal round Friday without Federer will be the first at a Grand Slam tournament since he lost in the third round of the 2004 French Open.

"It was a great run. Now I've got the quarterfinal streak going, I guess," Federer said with a smile.

Because of Federer's defeat, Nadal will reclaim the No. 1 ranking next week if he wins the title. The upset raises the possibility of a Nadal-Soderling rematch in the final.

It was a cold, damp afternoon, with occasional rain that had some spectators watching from under umbrellas, but the conditions didn't seem to rob Soderling's shots of any sting. He hit winners past Federer even standing two strides behind the baseline.

"The balls got heavy, but I've played good matches in these kind of conditions in the past," Soderling said. "It suits my game."

The upset was all the more surprising because Federer was in control early. He won 22 of his first 24 service points and led 30-0 in his first service game of the second set when he suddenly faltered, losing four points in a row.

A backhand wide by Federer gave Soderling his first break, and he held serve the entire set to even the match. It was the first set Federer had dropped in the tournament.

"He had some chances in the second set," Soderling said. "When I won the second set, which was very big for me, I really felt I could relax a little bit. After that I started to play better and better."

Soderling made a narrow escape to extend the third set serving at 4-5. Trailing 0-30, he hit a forehand that was called wide, but the umpire climbed off his chair, checked the mark and ruled the shot a winner. Instead of 0-40 and triple set point for Federer, the score was 15-30.

Then, at 30-40, Soderling erased the set point in a wild exchange. He charged forward and hit a slam that Federer scrambled to chase down near the backstop, stretching to whip it back, and Soderling leaped to put away an over-the-shoulder backhand volley.

The crowd roared with delight. Federer looked very unhappy.

Soderling then whacked back-to-back service winners of 139 and 138 mph to hold for 5-all. It was the second consecutive service game he won after trailing 0-30.

"That was a tough set for me to lose, having those chances," Federer said.

Rain prompted a delay in the middle of the next game. At that juncture, Federer led by one point after 167 had been played.

The match resumed on a drab evening in a half-empty stadium, and the remaining fans were firmly in Federer's corner.

But he promptly lost his serve, double-faulting before Soderling whacked a forehand winner for the break. When Soderling hit an ace to seal the set, Federer waved his arms as though helpless.

In the final set, Federer broke for a 2-0 lead but immediately lost serve. He saved three break points and held for 4-3, but there was no escape two games later, when he committed four unforced errors and was broken.

Match point came five points later, and Soderling hit a second serve that Federer couldn't put in play. The Swede walked to the net with his fist up and then pumped it to punctuate the breakthrough against his nemesis -- and everyone else's nemesis.

"This is a big win, but it's not the final," he said. "I don't want to celebrate too much. I want to focus on the next game."

Soderling improved to 5-18 against players ranked in the top three. His only other major semifinal berth was at Roland Garros a year ago.