Tomas Berdych knows what it’s like, trying to hold onto a wildly squirming fish he intends to eat long enough to bonk it on the head. He knows how tough it is to grab and wring the neck of a speedy chicken that doesn’t want to make the journey to the oven. But this time, unlike on some other occasions, Berdych finally got the job done—even if it wasn’t very pretty.
Today in Dubai, he ruined the connoisseur’s dream final when he survived three match points in the second set to roar back and knock off Roger Federer, 3-6, 7-6 (8), 6-4. Berdych will meet Novak Djokovic for the title tomorrow.
Ordinarily, Federer might shrug this off and say that this was “just one of those things.” Besides, Berdych is the No. 6-ranked player, and was a respectable 5-11 with Federer coming into today’s match, including a win in their previous meeting at last year’s U.S. Open quarterfinals.
However, the way Berdych was able to wrap up the win ought to give even the most rabid Federer partisan pause. Federer essentially threw the kitchen sink at Berdych, demonstrating two things by crunch time in the third set: That on a day when all other things are equal, he’s not entirely comfortable playing patient, baseline-based tennis against the 27-year-old, 6’5” Czech power player; and second, that nothing he could pull from his deep back of tricks was quite enough to derail Berdych.
That shortfall included some awfully persuasive serve-and-volley tennis that Federer fell back upon, but never long or successfully enough to turn the tide. Part of Federer’s problem in that regard that was his inability to raise his first-serve percentage into necessary zone to attack with consistent success. Both men converted a so-so 58 percent of their first serves, and won a nearly identical number of those points—Berdych 74 percent, Federer 72.
The most telling detail, though, is that Berdych was more effective on his second-serve points than Federer, winning 58 percent to his opponent's 53. Each man converted just two break points, even though Berdych looked at nine and Federer had a shot at 11.
Berdych fans undoubtedly felt a pang of déjà vu when Federer, leading 4-3, broke to take control of the first set, thanks in large part to two double faults (they were his only two of the match), followed by a brace of ugly errors. Federer then served out the set at love.
In the second set, Federer took his foot off the gas and looked oddly flat-footed. In a three-game stretch starting with the men on serve at 2-all, Berdych secured a break and won 12 of 13 points to pull away to a 5-2 lead. This being Federer, though, that lead was not exactly safe. The Swiss struck back in the ninth game to level it with a break.
The second-set tiebreaker will go down as the obvious turning point in this match, but there was a more subtle one in the 11th game. Berdych fell behind 0-30 following an electric backhand pass by Federer, and while he fought back to 30-all, he ultimately had to dispel three break points to hold. When he did, his confidence bloomed. He had a set point in the very next game, but Federer reached the haven of the tiebreaker—thanks in part to a missed “out” call that would have given Berdych the set.
In that decider, the men took turns winning points in bunches, but once again Berdych was unable to close the deal at an opportune moment. He had two serves with a 4-3 lead, but couldn’t win either of those points. When Federer hit his seventh ace on the next point, he had earned two match points—with another serve to come.
Federer blew the first match point with an odd chop backhand error, and Berdych dispatched the next one with a service winner. Berdych would see another set point at 6-7, but Federer blasted a cross-court forehand that the big man couldn’t handle.
Then it was Federer’s turn again: His third match point arrived with Berdych serving at 7-8, but an unreturnable serve to the backhand kept the Czech’s hopes alive. He then forced Federer into a backhand error and, with another set point, tagged an explosive service winner to force a decider.
By the fifth game of the final set, it was clear that Federer was spooked. He seemed uncertain about whether to attack or stay back, and looked reluctant to rally with Berdych, even while lacking the essential confidence to press forward to the net. Perhaps, like so many of his fans, he was counting on Berdych to get nervous and start spewing errors. He’s been known to do that, too.
Federer provided little resistance in the fifth game, falling behind 0-40. He hit an ace to keep the game alive, but then whacked an errant forehand to give up the critical break. Berdych held at love to jump to a 4-2 lead, and had three break points in the next game—thanks partly to two crazy but emblematic choices by Federer. At the first deuce, Federer rushed the net unwisely behind a second serve, only to have a pass whistle by him; at the next one, he tried a crazy drop shot off a service return. He held the game, but seemed more confused than ever.
Given his reputation, you have to give Berdych loads of credit for powering back from a 0-30 deficit in the next game to keep that precious break lead for 5-3. And while he missed two match-point opportunities in the next game, he had Federer thoroughly on the run and on his last legs. Berdych closed it out by winning his ensuing service game, and the match, with four straight points.