Australian Open Diary: Tomas Berdych passes the Rafael Nadal test
The crowd expected Nadal to bounce back
Some things in tennis feel like they are always meant to be. Like Tomas Berdych losing to a higher seed at a Grand Slam. Especially if the higher seed is Rafael Nadal. After all, Berdych has lost his last 17 consecutive encounters against the Spaniard.
So in the first men’s quarterfinal today at the Australian Open, even when Berdych leads Nadal by two sets to nil, the second of them being a bagel, the general mood in the Rod Laver Arena crowd is one of expectation, rather than shock. Yes, the Czech seventh seed has played a brilliant match so far. He has been impressive on serve, and his groundstrokes have been formidable.
But surely, he can’t maintain this level for the whole match. And definitely not against Nadal, the fighter par excellence, who comes into his own when his back is against the wall. Also, this is Berdych, the guy who loses the plot at crucial junctures in big matches. The guy known for being mentally weak when it comes to the crunch.
He doesn’t know how to beat Nadal in a Grand Slam.
So as the third set begins, everyone at Rod Laver Arena happily waits for the turning of the tide. There is a general buzz of anticipation in the air. Surely, Rafa will turn things around. Surely, Berdych will fall apart, and things will revert to normal.
The third set was a close contest
Predictably, Rafa begins to play better in the third set. He runs after balls like his life depends on it, and returns them with interest. His tomahawk forehand starts to click, and the typical bullet groundstroke winners start emerging. The pro-Rafa crowd starts to cheer and gets behind their man. They know he is about to make his move anytime now.
It happens with Berdych serving at 4-4 in the third set. We are dangerously close to the business end of the set. A break here can mean the set for Rafa.
Nadal’s return of serve hits the net cord, and drops gently into Berdych’s forecourt. The Spaniard immediately apologises, and the crowd murmurs loudly. Is this the stroke of luck their hero needs to get the all-elusive break? Surely, this must be the game we have all been waiting for.
Berdych follows a strong serve with a cross-court forehand winner.
The players engage in an athletic rally. Berdych is at the net and seems about to close out the point, but Nadal lunges with both hands, and flicks the ball down the line for a magnificent winner. It feels like vintage Rafa. Surely, the man has arrived.
Berdych sends down an ace.
Another furious rally follows. Berdych finds himself approaching the net, but Nadal pounds a forehand winner down the line, leaving the Czech stranded at the net. It is a dramatic way to get to break point. Nadal and the crowd roar as one. The atmosphere is electric. The signs are all in place, the moment has arrived.
Berdych comes up with a big serve, but Nadal challenges the call successfully. Second serve on break point. Berdych goes for a huge serve again into the corner. It is an ace, the gutsiest possible move in the situation. The crowd gasps. This is so unlike Berdych. Not the courage and the intent, but the excellence in the execution.
A short, sharp rally ensues. Berdych comes forward, but dumps a volley into the net. Finally, an unforced error. It is break point again. Are Berdych’s nerves finally going to make an appearance in this match?
Cool as ever, Berdych sends down an unreturnable serve. Nadal has no chance.
Berdych repeats the dose, and serves another ace. The crowd can now feel this game slipping away from Nadal.
Another big serve allows Berdych to follow up with a powerful forehand into the corner to wrap up the game.
And so, Berdych manages to hold. There is a collective sigh of disappointment from the crowd. Nadal grimaces at his box. There is a distinct deflating of atmosphere in the stadium. The unlikely has actually happened. Nadal has failed to hustle his usual way out of a game where he had all the momentum behind him.
Even more unlikely, Berdych has shown nerves of steel and the calmest of demeanours to hold on. You sense this was the moment for the Spaniard, and it has now passed.
Nadal continues to press, but does not come as close to a break again. On the other hand, he is confronted with Berdych’s steady play, and finds himself facing match points. He saves three of them at different times, all on his own serve, but this is now a fight for his survival, no longer an attacking surge.
On the fourth match point for Berdych, this time on his serve and in the tie-breaker, the Czech makes no mistake. Nadal finds the net, and Berdych exults. 6-2, 6-0, 7-6.
Tomas Berdych came into the match not having dropped a set in the entire tournament. Amazingly, he ended the match with that record still intact. What made this all the more impressive was that his victory came against one of the all-time greats, to whom he had lost 17 consecutive times.
What made this turnaround possible? Nadal not playing at his best? Dani Vallverdu joining the Berdych coaching camp? Technical adjustments to his game?
I like to think we saw the key to the victory in that ninth game of the third set. Berdych overcame his inner demons, withstood the barrage from Nadal, and emerged unscathed. It was unexpected, refreshing, and almost uplifting to watch.
Thankfully in tennis, some things are not always meant to be, after all.