We all knew from the start that Tomas Berdych was primed to be the hero of this Davis Cup final. Eleven-time major champion Rafael Nadal, who bested Berdych in the 2010 Wimbledon final, decided to stay home to rest his knees a while longer. And the tie was being played in Prague on what Spanish captain Alex Corretja called “the fastest surface of the year.”
But high expectations at home can be rough in this competition. Just ask Ilie Nastase, who famously called his team a “10:1 favorite” when Romania had home-court advantage against the U.S. in 1972. Or Juan Martin del Potro, whose Argentinian team faced Spain in Mar del Plata four years ago. Romania and Argentina still haven’t won the sterling silver trophy.
Sure enough, Berdych struggled against Nicolas Almagro on Friday, needing five sets to beat a player who’s never reached a tournament final on anything but clay. After that rubber, which leveled the tie at 1-all, Corretja floated the idea that Almagro’s four-hour loss was all part of the plan, that Spain was using the rope-a-dope on Berdych. Let the 6’5” Czech punch himself out in the first two days (he and Radek Stepanek beat Marc Lopez and Marcel Granollers in four sets yesterday in doubles), so on the last day diminutive David Ferrer could score a knockout against the Czech Republic’s number-one player and spark a comeback for the visitors. Which he did, to the score of 6-2, 6-3, 7-5.
Nerves and fatigue certainly appeared to be a factor right from the start as Berdych, after drifting three feet behind the baseline, lofted a backhand long to give Ferrer a break in the second game. The “ice rink” court at Prague’s O2 Arena started to look like a bad choice for the Czech Republic, which was going for its first Davis Cup as an independent nation. (Ivan Lendl, in the arena today, led Czechoslovakia to the crown back in 1980.) Spain might be a clay-loving country, but Ferrer had beaten Berdych more than once on fast, hard surfaces. And here he was, cranking inside-out forehands and down-the-line backhands, crouching into each stroke as if taking a gut shot at close range. He went up 3-0 in a matter of minutes and cruised to a 6-2 first set.
The match remained utterly without tension in the second set, with the only question being whether Ferrer would run away with the match. Horns blared and cheers erupted with every Berdych point, but the crowd didn’t really seem up for willing their man to victory. This couldn’t have been a surprise to any serious tennis fan. Like Lendl before him, Berdych has never been all that lovable. Defensive about being kept just outside the Grand Slam winner’s circle year after year, the glowering, big-hitting 27-year-old often comes across as self-satisfied and harried at the same time, like Harry Lime up on that Vienna Ferris wheel.
Ferrer has handled his own perennial bridesmaid status much better. Undersized and floppy-haired, the 30-year-old Spaniard is a natural underdog and uses it to his advantage. The small Spanish contingent in the crowd was behind him, and the Czech fans, though certainly not for him, weren’t against him. That was enough for the world’s fifth ranked player. Whereas Berdych was sluggish and out of synch, Ferrer was an unwavering electric current. When he dug out a beautifully angled inside-out forehand from Berdych and followed it with a forehand winner to break early in the second set, no one had any doubt about the outcome of the match. Ferrer easily took the set 6-3, offering up only four unforced errors.
The third set offered more of the same. Berdych fought on for hearth and home, even earning back a break for 4-all, but it was just for show. Ferrer broke again and served at 6-5. When Berdych dumped a forehand in the net to send the tie to a fifth and deciding rubber, Ferrer dropped to his knees in joy. His opponent, meanwhile, stared vacantly into the mists as he headed to the sidelines.
Berdych won two rubbers at this Davis Cup Final, but he wouldn’t be the final-day hero.