Late bloomer Soderling to challenge the kingpins

By Ian Ransom

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Injury-prone, middle-aged by tennis standards and owning precious little silverware, Robin Soderling would seem an unlikely candidate to challenge the heavyweights for the Australian Open crown.

As bare as 25-year-old Soderling's trophy cabinet may be, the Swede has achieved something that many have strived for, none have attained, and some thought impossible -- the scalp of Rafa Nadal at his beloved French Open.

Last year's shock fourth-round victory broke Nadal's 31-match unbeaten run at Roland Garros and sent the then top-ranked player, seemingly at the height of his powers, into a tailspin that he has yet to recover from.

Tennis fans, after picking up their jaws, asked: "Robin who?"

Now, the man who won only nine matches in his first 10 tournaments in 2009 no longer needs any introduction.

"I had a tough start last year," Soderling told reporters at this week's Kooyong Classic, a warm-up exhibition tournament for the Australian Open.

"After (Melbourne) I had some problems with injuries, struggled a bit. But ... I think started to play well a week or two before Paris, and then after that it has been really great."

Prior to his French Open breakthrough, where he reached the final before being beaten by Roger Federer, Soderling had never passed the third round at a grand slam.

The only time the Swede with a big serve and a bludgeoning forehand had raised eyebrows was for irritating Nadal during a five-set marathon at Wimbledon in 2007 by mocking the Spaniard's short-tugging habit.

Since Roland Garros, Soderling has put in a quarter-final appearance at the U.S. Open -- losing to Federer again -- and reached the last eight or better in his last six tournaments of 2009.

To prove that he is no one-trick pony, Soderling defeated Nadal again at the ATP Tour Finals in London, where he also humbled world number three Novak Djokovic to make the semis.

FEDERER MONKEY

Perhaps the biggest psychological boost, however, has been shrugging the Federer monkey off his back.

After chalking up a woeful 12-0 losing record against the Swiss maestro, Soderling kicked off the new season by beating him in three sets in Abu Dhabi.

Unfortunately for Soderling, that win will not go down in the official records since it was achieved at an exhibition event. The Swede, however, was relieved with any kind of win over Federer.

"It's not a nice thing losing to someone a lot of times in a row, so of course it was nice to finally beat him. I mean, hopefully we are going to play a lot more times and have more good matches in the future," Soderling said.

The Swede's next chance to play Federer could potentially be the semi-final at the Australian Open according to the draw but his preparations for Melbourne Park have been far from ideal.

Soderling was ousted in the opening round of the Chennai Open earlier this month. He also lost to Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Kooyong on Wednesday.

Another roadblock is Soderling's fitness. The Swede retired hurt due to elbow soreness during a match against Croatia's Ivan Ljubicic on Thursday.

Despite the recent form lapse and ongoing injury niggles, there are no question marks over his confidence, the Swede rating himself as capable of mixing it with the game's very best.

"I think the game is getting a lot tougher now compared to maybe, two, three, four years ago, and also I think there's at least 10 guys, even more, who can compete for the bigger tournaments, for the grand slams," Soderling said.

"If I play well, I see myself as one of them."

(Editing by Pritha Sarkar)