By Philip O’Connor
(Reuters) – For decades, tennis players from Sweden travelled to Roland Garros with high expectations but the sport is going to need an iconic figure like soccer star Zlatan Ibrahimovic if they are to regain their former glory, Robin Soederling has told Reuters.
The two-time French Open finalist, who lost to Roger Federer in 2009 and Rafael Nadal in 2010, was speaking ahead of the French Open, the event where his compatriots notched some of their biggest successes from the late 1970s to 2010.
“It started with Bjorn Borg, we had a big star and tennis was very popular. Success breeds interest, and tennis was featured a lot in the media, and I think a lot of kids had tennis as their first choice of sport,” Soederling explained.
“We had (Stefan) Edberg, (Mats) Wilander and the rest, and then the next generation, and that was the reason I started. There was always Swedes to follow at tournaments. I didn’t have a favourite player but I liked to follow the Swedes,” the 33-year-old said.
“Success breeds success, so I think we’re going to see the same thing in soccer with Zlatan (Ibrahimovic). In a number of years there’ll be a lot of kids who started playing because of him.”
The current biggest hope for the Swedes is 22-year-old Elias Ymer, who qualified for the French Open by beating Prajnesh Gunneswaran on Friday.
Ymer, who is coached by Soederling and is just outside the top 100 in the ATP world rankings, is hoping to follow in the footsteps of Bjorn Borg who claimed the title at Roland Garros four years in a row from 1978 to 1981.
When Borg failed to make the final in 1982, it was left to his compatriot Mats Wilander to raise the trophy after defeating Argentina’s Guillermo Vilas in the final.
Wilander went on to win again in 1985 and 1988 and he lost the final in 1987, with fellow Swedes Mikael Pernfors and Stefan Edberg also finishing as runners-up during a golden decade for Swedish tennis.
Since then it’s been slim pickings for the Swedes, with a losing appearance by Magnus Norman in the 2000 final and consecutive defeats for Soederling the closest they have come to winning since Wilander’s 1988 victory.
Many in Swedish tennis thought that Soederling himself might be that shining light that would convince kids to turn to tennis, but his career was cut short by illness and he played his last match aged just 26.
Soederling says that the competition is much tougher these days and kids are choosing other sports like ice hockey and soccer, but that there is still hope for tennis.
“I think the Swedish people were spoiled in previous years, having so many stars during our heyday, but there are kids of 14, 15 who are very talented and we will see in the coming years how it goes for them,” Soederling said.
“Even if we have developed within the association and as coaches, we need to attract the most talented athletes to the sport of tennis.”
(Reporting by Philip O’Connor; Editing by Christian Radnedge)