See what a little trash talk in tennis can do? That’s probably what Tomas Berdych was thinking, and lamenting, as he watched Nicolas Almagro play inspired tennis against him for five sets and nearly four hours in front of a piercingly loud Prague audience today. Earlier in the week, Berdych had called Almagro Spain’s “weak link,” the man whom his Czech team would “build its victory around.” Berdych did build his own win over him today, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-3, but by making it go as long as it did, Almagro may have done more for his own team in the long run. Berdych will most likely have to come back and play doubles tomorrow afternoon, and then the first reverse singles against a rested David Ferrer on Sunday. Judging by how the Big Berd looked at the end of the fifth set today, that could be difficult. He won the last two games in part because he was too tired to do anything but stand and let his shots rip.
Otherwise, personal rivalry aside, this was Davis Cup as usual—a sprawling, sometimes-heroic, sometimes-nervy mass of great shots, plot twists, team love, audience misbehavior, and a terrible, kazoo-like soundtrack. While Berdych tried to use his superior power to rush the clay-loving Almagro on this quick hard court, the Spaniard countered with hooking angles designed to get his taller opponent moving. The two players traded runs and lulls all evening. Berdych, the favorite, kept threatening to slam the door with his intimidating pace, while Almagro kept getting off the mat and grabbing command of the rallies back.
Berdych came in with an 8-3 record in their head to head, and once his teammate Radek Stepanek lost to Spain’s David Ferrer in the opening rubber
, it became essential for him to win. But Ferrer’s straight-set victory had sapped some of the energy and anticipation from the crowd. While Berdych had the upper-hand in the early going—he broke Almagro at 4-3 with a curling crosscourt pass and won the first set—the Spaniard hit the ball well and kept his attitude upbeat. He only got better in the second, as he began to dominate from the baseline; Almagro's one-handed backhand, which he hit with as much authority you’ll ever see from him on a hard court, was the aesthetic highlight of the day. He broke Berdych with a brilliant forehand-backhand crosscourt combination to make it 4-2, and held out from there.
In general, though, Almagro had to play better than his norm to stay with the higher-ranked Berdych, and the Spaniard fell back to earth again in the third set. The turnaround came in the first two games. Almagro reached break point on Berdych’s serve—the big man appeared to be staggering—but hit a crosscourt backhand that missed by a few inches. Berdych, smiling with relief, held. Almagro double-faulted to be broken in the next game, and the Czech ran out the set from there. When Berdych opened the fourth with a love break, and followed it with a love hold, it appeared that there would be no comeuppance for the Bad Berd.
But the “weak link” refused to snap. Almagro broke for 2-3 after a couple of nervous misses by Berdych, and they held to 5-4. At that point, the charged atmosphere got another jolt, when the two players went chest to chest as they walked to the sideline for the changeover—neither wanted to give way. Fittingly, the set went to a tiebreaker, and just as fittingly, Almagro, sailing on his third wind of the day, won it 7-5 with an ace. We were all even.
Both players fought as valiantly through the decider. Berdych held off break points in the opening game with two service winners, and broke with a gutsy backhand return at 3-2. But the Czech, growing weary, couldn’t sustain it. He made two unforced errors to give the break back. As I said, though, that weariness helped Berdych in the end—it relaxed him; all he could do was hit big. At 4-3, he cranked two huge forehands to reach break point, and broke with a backhand winner. At 5-3, he opened with another forehand winner, followed it with a volley winner, and shut the door with two big serves.
When these two played in Australia this year, Berdych had refused to shake Almagro’s hand after the Spaniard had drilled him with a forehand. This time Almagro didn’t return the gesture. After four hours, he walked to the net, stuck his hand out to Berdych, gave the Czech coach a wink, and his Spanish supporters a thumbs up. Almagro may yet turn out to be the weak link on Spain’s team this weekend, but for tennis fans he something else today: a class act.
Berdych created more pressure for himself with his words, so credit him for withstanding it. Now there’s not much time for rest. He finished this match around midnight, and he’ll be out to play doubles with Stepanek tomorrow at 2:00 Prague time. The Bad Berd could still be the hero. Or he could look like the weak link himself—for helping inspire Almagro to exhaust him.