NYTimes: A Tennis Career Changeover for Robin Soderling

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SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) Robin Soderling was not sure where the paint should go.

In a cafe at the Kungliga Tennishallen here, Soderling talked with a tournament worker who was in charge of putting the Stockholm Open’s logo on center court. Time was important; the tournament was less than two weeks away.

“The TV cameras need to be able to see it,” said Soderling, who was once ranked as high as No. 4 in the world and played in two French Openfinals.

Yes, the man with the paint replied, but where is it supposed to go? A few feet in front of the wall? A few yards? And which direction do the letters face? Soderling told the worker he would look into it right away. Then he sighed.

“Paint,” he said, smiling. He laughed. “This is my life now.”

 

It has been a strange six months for Soderling after an even stranger, and scary, three years. In 2011, he was soaring on the professional tennis tour, starting the year with three tournament victories in four events. But around Wimbledon, he began to feel sick: fever, chills and an overwhelming fatigue enveloped him. It felt as if his blood had been replaced by molasses, he said.

The symptoms ebbed briefly; Soderling even won a tournament later that summer. But soon the weariness returned, fiercer than before, and Soderling stopped playing tennis because, in his words, “there were days when I couldn’t even stand up.”

Doctors told him he had mononucleosis.

Now, nearly 1,200 days after his last match on tour, Soderling, 30, has yet to return. About six months ago, he tried to resume his old training schedule, practicing several days in a row to see if perhaps he could be an elite athlete again. His body quickly rejected the notion.

“It wasn’t pretty,” Soderling said. “I used to be able to practice, get a massage, have something to eat and feel ready for the rest of the day. This time, it was like I basically had nothing left.”

Around that time, he was approached by Christer Hult, the executive who oversees the Stockholm Open and the Swedish Open in Bastad. Hult wanted to know if Soderling, who grew up near Gothenburg but moved to Stockholm as a teenager, would be interested in becoming director of the capital city’s annual tournament. Soderling had been working on a few other projects, including the creation of his own brand of tennis balls.

After a few discussions with Hult about logistics, Soderling signed on, officially making the transition from tennis professional to tennis executive. He is primarily the face of the tournament, which began Monday, making regular appearances at tennis clinics and schools and other events designed to drum up interest. But this is not purely a ceremonial position.

Soderling has been involved in all aspects of the tournament’s planning. Even though he participated in hundreds of events as a player, Soderling said, he was initially flummoxed by just how many people it took to put on a successful event.

A few years ago, he might have sniffed angrily if the volunteer driving a courtesy car was late for a pickup at the players’ hotel. These days, he said, he has a greater sympathy for just how difficult it can be to get a field of players, coaches and officials all to the right place at the right time.

Before, Soderling said, he only vaguely knew how tournament appearance fees worked, mostly because he knew only how much he would receive. Now he is the one on the other side of the negotiating table, meeting with the agents for top players to try to persuade them to play in his tournament.

“It is a little weird,” Soderling said, “but I know how much I would get, so I can know what is right and what is not.”

Hult said he was pleased to see “just how interested” Soderling has been in all facets of the tournament, and was impressed with his ideas.

“He is in the meetings with the whole crew and seeing how some of the small things are actually very big,” Hult said.

Soderling is not yet sure whether this will be a long-term career switch. He purposely signed a one-year contract in part so that he could see if he enjoyed the work (he said he did), but also because he had not ruled out trying to play again.

This past year has been invigorating, he said. Working on the tournament has been challenging, and finishing the design of his tennis ball — which will be used in the Stockholm Open beginning next year — was satisfying.

Yet nothing has quite replaced the feel that Soderling got from playing in front of his sport’s biggest crowds, as he did, say, in 2009 when he upset Rafael Nadal in the fourth round at Roland Garros, ending Nadal’s 31-match winning streak at the French Open.

Soderling still thinks about that day, and others like it, but those moments have begun to feel further and further away. During this year’s United States Open, Soderling said, he was watching a match on television when his young daughter came into the room. For a moment, she watched her father watching the tennis, but then she interrupted.

“She wanted to watch Dora,” Soderling said. “So, I said, ‘O.K.’ We watched Dora.”

He shrugged.

“I think about it all the time: She has no idea that I was a player,” he added. “She has never seen me play. She has been on the court, so if you asked her who plays tennis in the family, she would probably say her.”

That, as much as anything, is what motivates Soderling to hold on to the idea that he might play on tour again. He laughed when it was suggested that at the very least, he could play as a wild card in the Stockholm Open, where the fans would surely embrace him.

Hult, for his part, said that while he has loved having Soderling work behind the scenes, “we would definitely rather have him play.”

But Soderling is not sure what his body can handle.

“Not this year at least,” he said in the cafe, then paused to answer his cellphone.

He listened for a few seconds, nodded, then quickly got up and headed toward the court and the man in charge of the painting.

“Three meters,” he said. “I need to tell him that the logo is painted three meters behind the baseline.”

 

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