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Tuesday, May 28, 2013
Updated: June 2, 10:45 AM ET
Robin Soderling's absence

By LZ Granderson
ESPN.com

The month before suffering his only loss ever at the French Open, Rafael Nadal had destroyed Robin Soderling 6-1, 6-0 on red clay in Rome. That only added to the shock when the Swede, who at the time was No. 25 in the world, took Rafa out in Paris in 2009.

But flukes happen.

And considering Rafa was suffering from a knee injury, and later admitted he had been affected by his parents' separation earlier that year, the unexpected defeat was widely characterized as such. This was backed up by Rafa reclaiming his title the following year without dropping a set. It was undercut by the player who advanced from the other side of the draw: the no longer anonymous Soderling.

Nadal/Soderling
Rafael Nadal has never lost at the French Open, except in the fourth round against Robin Soderling in 2009.

After upsetting Nadal, Soderling made it to the 2009 final before losing to Roger Federer. Soderling then went on to Wimbledon, where he made it to the fourth round for the first time, before again losing to Federer. Soderling also reached the quarters of that year's US Open. By the time he defeated Federer in the quarters of the French in 2010, Soderling was a top-10 player and legitimate contender. He won three titles in the first two months of 2011, going 18-1. But by the end of summer, he was gone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) is so common that up to 95 percent of Americans ages 35-40 have been infected. When young people who were not exposed in the first decade of life contract the virus, it leads to mononucleosis, or mono, 35-50 percent of the time. You may recall Federer was stymied by mono at the beginning of the 2008 season. Typically the extreme fatigue, sore throat and other symptoms last a few weeks, maybe even a month.

Rarely does EBV persist for more than six months. A year, even more so.

On July 17, 2011, Soderling crushed then-No. 6 David Ferrer 6-2, 6-2 to claim the Swedish Open, his fourth title of the year. And because of EBV he hasn't been back on tour since. "I've been having a bit of a rough time," he told me from his home in Stockholm. "That year I had some fever and sore throat but I was able to keep playing. But then I started to feel really, really tired all of the time. I had no energy. Then I couldn't get out of bed.

"There's not much the doctors can do and I've been to quite a few of them. They all tell me that my body has to work through it, to do what I can. Now, if I train too much it takes me two days to recover."

What's training too much? "Some days, at most I've been able to practice for an hour," he said. "Sometimes I'm able to play 40 minutes and do fine for a few days, and sometimes it won't work. I have to play how I feel. Right now I've been playing 30 minutes every second day. I pushed myself too hard one time and couldn't get out of bed for a long time. I've learned from my mistake and I'm not going to do it again."

You must remember, when Soderling was beating Ferrer, there was no so-called big four. Novak Djokovic was having one of the all-time great years but he had reached No. 1 for the first time only earlier that month. Andy Murray hadn't won a Slam. That's not to say Soderling could have supplanted one of those players in the top tier, but you never know. And that's the part about sports, and his situation, that messes with you. He hadn't been expected to beat Rafa at the French either. He beat him again after that -- in straight sets at the 2009 ATP World Tour Finals -- and also has wins over Djokovic and Murray.

In fact, while the rest of us like to point constantly to that historic win in Paris as the high point, Soderling said he doesn't really think about it and that he has played better.

"It's something that I'm proud of because beating Rafa at the French is not something that happens every year," he said. "But I've done more than that in my career. I rate that match very high, but in five years he's going to have more losses in the French Open than just me, and then people may not talk about that one match as much.

"I'm more satisfied with the win against Roger [at the 2010 French Open]."

I can see that. Despite Rafa's 20-10 head-to-head edge over Federer, the Spaniard is mentioned as an all-time great. Fed is mentioned as the all-time great. And no thanks to Soderling's out-of-the-norm reaction at age 26 to what is considered a fairly innocuous virus, only the diehard fans mention him at all. A career hijacked by the same thing that jump-started it -- a fluke.

"I start to think about what I would do if I couldn't come back and of course I would be sad, but it wouldn't destroy me," he said. "There are still a lot of things I could do. I'm happy I was able to make a lot of money in my sport. Money doesn't make you happy, but it gives you security. And you know whatever happens you'll have money and that takes some pressure of you."

Soderling/Federer
Robin Soderling, left, beat Roger Federer in the 2010 French Open quarterfinals.

Soderling is a reminder that the most understated element of a great career is health. Doesn't matter how fast your serve is if you can't get out on the court and play. And though that's a bit of common sense, it is still one of those things that's easy to overlook because it's sort of invisible. But a major reason Federer was able to play in a record 10 consecutive Grand Slam finals was that he was healthy enough to play. American Jan-Michael Gambill had all of the promise in the world. But his body didn't hold up.

And health doesn't just dictate the arc of one player's career or even a franchise. It could write or erase entire chapters of a sport. What if Yao Ming didn't have major foot issues? What would that have done to the use of traditional centers in the NBA? What if Monica Seles was never stabbed in the back by a deranged Steffi Graf fan? What would baseball look like if the Cubs were able to win a World Series with a healthy Mark Prior and Kerry Wood?

For fans, this game of "what if" can be fun, sometimes agonizing. But for the athlete going through health issues, those hypotheticals can torment, according to ESPN analyst and former NBA lottery pick Jay Williams, whose career was derailed 10 years ago by a motorcycle accident.

"I still think about what might have been all of the time," said Williams, who tried to come back after rehab but was never the same. "Earlier I was in a space of anger and was jaded by the fact that some players were thriving whereas now I just miss the game itself. The small things that came along with my job. Bringing a kid on the court before the game to shoot around, picking random fans for free tickets and things like that."

Soderling is still hoping to rejoin the tour but the clock is ticking. He'll be 29 in August and guys who can play at a high level in their 30s -- like Federer, Andre Agassi -- are almost as rare as a Nadal loss at the French. "I talked to some of the Swedish guys, but I chose to stay away from the tennis world because it's easier to handle all of this if I do," he said. "I couldn't be a coach. I will always love playing tennis but what I didn't like was the traveling. Sometimes 40 weeks out of the year. That's worth it for me, but not worth it for someone else."

So if there is a silver lining for Soderling, it's being able to spend more time at home with his wife, Jenni, and 8-month-old daughter, Olivia. Before the illness, they lived in Monaco. Last year they moved back to Sweden where their families live. "It helps a lot to have something else to think about doing," he said. "Five years ago, tennis was all I could think about. ... When I was playing, Jenni was traveling with me all of the time. Now it's a different relationship; we have gotten closer in many ways."

It's doubtful he'll be able to reclaim the place in tennis he was forced to vacate. Then again, if his health ever allows it, being able to get out there -- even for a little while -- has got to be better than never again.