Novak Djokovic beat Tomas Berdych in two very different but equally familiar ways today. In the first set, he did what he usually does against the bigger, stiffer Czech. Djokovic played more flexible defense, returned serve presciently, kept the ball deep and Berdych off the net, and controlled the rallies with seemingly little strain. He won that set 6-2. If you were wondering why Djokovic’s head-to-head record against Berdych was so one-sided—10-1 coming into this match—that set likely answered any remaining questions. In it, Berdych, a power player, managed just three winners and won just 31 percent of points on his second serve. In his earlier matches, against Andy Murray and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Berdych had been able to take his ground strokes inside the baseline and finish points at the net. Not so against Djokovic’s speed and depth.
This was Djokovic the efficient baseline machine, the tennis clinician. In the second set, we saw his other side, the tightrope walking daredevil who needs to be pushed the edge before he can relax and play his best. That guy showed up when Novak was serving, up a break, at 2-1. He hit an easy backhand long for 0-30. He let Berdych get in for a winning volley for 15-40. He was broken for the first time. It might have been the fact that with his first set win, Djokovic clinched a spot in the WTF’s semifinals, but he lost just enough concentration to give Berdych some unexpected hope. Now it was the Czech who was stepping in and dictating the neutral rallies.
The set progressed that way, with no breaks, until Djokovic served at 5-6. Berdych snapped off a backhand pass to reach 15-30. The crowd roared more loudly than it had all day; a third set looked possible. It probably looked that way to Berdych as well, because he chose that moment to make two bad unforced errors with his more vulnerable shot, his forehand. Djokovic hit an ace to hold. It was a harbinger of the tiebreaker to come.
Berdych opened the breaker with two volley winners. When he connected for a forehand winner to make it 5-1, a third set looked more than possible. But old habits, and characters, never really die in tennis, and both Berdych and Djokovic quickly reverted to familiar form. The Serb, playing fast and loose with his back to the wall as always, found his crosscourt forehand and his mind-reader's return. The big point came with Berdych leading 6-5; here was his last chance at the set. Djokovic anticipated his serve up the middle, pushed Berdych back with his return, and watched as he tried to do too much with a backhand, got his body twisted up, and blasted the ball into the middle of the net. At 6-6, Berdych’s forehand deserted him again, as he hit an inch wide. On the next point, Djokovic wrapped it up with a service winner, for a 6-2, 7-6(6) win and a ticket to the semifinals. The top seed advances with a 3-0 record and just one set surrendered.
Advice for Berdych: If the score is tight, don’t go for all-out winners on your forehand. Advice for Djokovic: If it's allowed, forfeit all of the points until you're down break point, or set point, or match point, or 1-5 in a tiebreaker. Today, when Djokovic went down by that score, it really did look like he believed he had Berdych right where he wanted him. He was almost flawless from there, while Berdych panicked.
Take your pick, clinical first set or Houdini-esque second set, now you know why Novak Djokovic owns Tomas Berdych.