The odds will surely be shortening on Tomas Berdych making a deep run at Roland Garros, but nobody in their right mind would bet against Rafael Nadal there, or today in Rome, after a sublime 6-4, 7-5 victory over the Czech in which Rafa struck 34 winners for just 10 unforced errors.
Berdych, now 26, continues to blossom under the tutelage of Tomas Krupa, having reached the quarterfinals in seven of nine tournaments played in 2012, but if he is to become a serious contender, he will have to beat Nadal sooner or later; the Spaniard has now won their last 11 meetings.
It looked initially as if Nadal would thoroughly dominate, racing to a 0-40 lead before breaking Berdych’s serve in the first game of the match, leaving the Czech laughing and shaking his head. But Berdych settled himself quickly to the task at hand and began to play some of the best tennis he has ever produced on red clay, pressing hard on Nadal’s serve in the next game before netting an attemped pass on break point, the only one he would see in the set. With both men striking the ball so well it almost beggared belief, the 6-4 scoreline underlined an unpalatable truth; that against Nadal on this surface, anything short of perfection is not good enough.
The second set was a slightly different story, although it began the same way as the first; with Berdych facing break point as he served to open it. He saved that point with a service winner, however, and began to play even better, raising his first serve percentage—58 percent in the first set, perhaps the only aspect of his performance that could be improved—to the mid-80s. Nadal saved a break point at 1-2 but found himself facing two more at 2-3. When he threw in a short defensive slice, Berdych flicked the ball cross-court beautifully to break Nadal’s serve for the first time this tournament and forge ahead in the match.
Leading at 40-15 after hitting a remarkable defensive lob right on to the baseline, it looked like the set was Berdych’s. But Nadal refused to be cowed. Two attacking points took him to deuce, and Berdych double-faulted for the first time. Saving two break points with big serves, it looked like Berdych might escape, only to double-fault again on game point as the crowd groaned. On the third break point, with Berdych well on top of the rally, he threw in a poor drop shot and was punished as the Spaniard chased it down to break.
Back on serve, and understandably deflated, Berdych did well to hold in his next service game after having been again pegged back from a 40-15 lead, but he could not get near Nadal’s serve this time. With the pressure all on him at 5-6, he was stung twice by Nadal’s passing shots before Rafa secured the break. Berdych fought valiantly as Nadal served for the match, but the game was his match in microcosm: So good, but not nearly good enough.