Going Ballistic

Thursday, April 01, 2010 /by

98201762

by Pete Bodo

High noon arrived a little late in sunny Miami today, and by the time the two gunfighters - Tomas Berdych and Fernando Verdasco - finished their business in the Crandon corral, the light falling on the spectators was molten and the backstops and retaining walls around the court were shot full of smoking holes.

That's the kind of mess you end up when you send out men like these two to settle scores, in this case Berdych's 5-3 lead in what figures as a splendid little rivalry. All but two of their previous matches went three sets, and this one was no different. Berdych won this shootout, 4-6,7-6,6-4. Isn't it nice that in tennis, the gunfighters always live to fight another day?

The gunfigher comparison might seem a bit tired in general, but I use it for a specific reason here. Both of these guys love to powder the ball, and they have a hankering to go-for-broke more often than some of their peers and to hail with the consequences. But it's a little more complicated than that. The best way I can think of to describe a meeting of these two trigger-happy warriors is that before they step out into that dusty street, someone empties four chambers in the cylinder of each man's six-shooter, replacing the bullets with two blanks and leaving two chambers empty altogether.

Then the guys start firing away, and you're never really sure what you'll get when either man swings the racket: a savage cry of pain and a puff of dust from across the net, a big bang and billows of smoke (but nothing else), or a sharp, anti-climatic. . . click. It can be a load of fun to watch this kind of match, especially when both men are letting it rip.

Berdych is a hard case; he's a big, straw-blond man (6-5) who looks like he ought to be from Sweden and named Joachim Johansson (his hearth is actually in the Czech Republic). He plays true to size; Berdych loads up and rains down aces without apology, and belts forehands and two-fisted backhand with equal panache and, seemingly, a blood-chilling disregard for which side of the line they fall upon.

Verdasco is a puzzling case. He plays bigger than 6-2, for sure, and he demonstrated in the Australian Open semifinals of 2009 that he's happy to have a shootout with anyone (on that occasion, it was in an epic match against the man he calls his "partner," Rafael Nadal). But Verdasco has struggled to surmount the quarterfinals hurdle at Masters 1000 events (he was 0-8 going in, although each of his five Masters quarterfinal losses in 2009 were to a player in the elite top four). "Knowing it was Berdych I was playing today and not Federer, I had to think I had a better chance," Verdasco said, ruefully. "But Berdych really likes to play flat and hard and today he was hitting hard. . . very hard."

But also, no lead is safe when Verdasco is holding it. He plays more dangerous, inspired tennis when he's trailing than when he's trying to put a little distance between himself and an opponent. And you can usually count on Verdasco periodically tiring of all that noise and smoke, and repairing to the mental shade tree before throwing himself back into harm's way. His better opponent take full advantage of those precious respites, and when they've gotten back on top the chase is on again.

So it was yesterday, as Verdasco won the first set and led 3-1, love-30 on Berdych's serve. At the time, Berdych's racket was more garden hose than six-shooter. He sprayed balls with a profligacy that was, in a perverse way, admirable in that  He's crazy and he don't care about nothin' way. . . Verdasco felt no remorse when he contemplated how Berdych dodged that bullet, though: "I didn't do mistakes in that game, even if I did many in the match. We both of us sometimes were losing position and not hitting the ball right, but in that game he made many good shots. That was the important moment of the match, how he held his serve there."

Verdasco's chief mistake, though, was not taking better care of his serve in the very next game. Berdych broke him, and from that point on the men took potshots at each other, some of them hitting home, others hitting the fence. In the second set tiebreaker, Verdasco fell behind 2-4, then flubbed a forehand volley that was a little too close to his left hip - click! - and fell irreversibly behind, The end was pre-ordained in the seventh game of the third set, when Berdych punctuated Verdasco's errors with a winning pass to earn the decisive break.

Don't bother looking for a Verdasco transcript, because he didn't do an official presser. but a couple of us button-holed him afterward. He's a regular gent, both loquacious and frank. He said he paid dearly for leaving so many of his customarily lethal forehands short, and his attempts to disrupt Berdych's rhythm went largely unrewarded. "Tomas likes to play flat and hard. If he play three or four hard balls, I try to change the pace by getting more air under the ball, or using different spins, but I made too many mistakes and today it didn't help."

When you play like Tomas, it's hard to be consistent all the time. He smash the ball, many times, and sometimes makes three, four, five strokes unbelievable (for Berdych, that's a marathon rally). But then next two or three points he make a mistake. That's why he's number twenty even if he has potential to be top 10. He's not in there, because he's not very regular (consistent)."

And poor Berdych - his official presser attracted all of two scribes (I was otherwise occupied with Verdasco), and the best thing it produced for our purposes here was this comment on Verdasco: "I think he's got these options pretty good.  He can really swing and make the winners from almost all over the court, so that's his kind of advantage. But I was feeling well.  I was feeling that I can play the long rallies, so I was just trying to keep the ball in play as long as I can, you know, just to give him the chance to make an error."

In other words, both men were counting on those empty chambers and blanks, and Verdasco's hammer fell on them more often. He made a neat 50 unforced errors to Berdych's 31, but just half-a-dozen more winners (36 to 25). Robin Soderling waits yonder for Berdych, and the way Soderling is playing these days you can count on all six of those chambers being full of live rounds.

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