The Guy in the Next Round

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INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—What a difference a day can make at a tennis tournament. 

If you had a ticket for Wednesday’s day session, you saw four matches that went the distance, two of which involved Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal winning 7-5-in-the-third-set thrillers. It might have taken a while, and the sun might have left you feeling something like a lobster on two legs, but it was a day of tennis you wouldn't forget. 

But what if you chose, by dumb bad luck, to attend the following afternoon instead? Today you would have heard two announcements inside Stadium 1 at Indian Wells, the first informing you that Sam Stosur had withdrawn from her quarterfinal, scheduled at 11 A.M., the second letting you know that the top seed, Victoria Azarenka, had pulled out of hers later in the day. Provided that you didn’t turn around and drive straight back out of the desert, never to bother with the sport again, the one singles match you would have seen was the quarterfinal between Tomas Berdych and Kevin Anderson. In other words, the one that didn’t feature Federer and Nadal.

At least Berdych and Anderson played a match. It was a battle of baseliners in baseball caps—big baseliners, that is. Next to the 6'8" Anderson, Berdych, at 6'5", was the shrimp of the court. But he was also the winner, 6-4, 6-4, in a slam-bang slugfest where rallies were short and every ball off the strings produced a minor sonic boom as it echoed through a half-empty arena. Berdych doesn’t especially like to play Anderson, his mirror image, but he was 5-0 against him coming in, and he made it six for six today to reach his first semifinal here in nine tries.

Berdych, never famous for his easy smile—even his post-victory press conferences can be prickly affairs—was obviously very happy with the result and the milestone. He’s come through without dropping a set, and he seemed especially pleased to have navigated the heat and sun and wind of the desert. With his high ball toss and rigid ground strokes, Berdych and the elements have never been a good match; look no further than his loss to Andy Murray in the twisting winds at Flushing Meadows last fall. Today this native of Central Europe even went so far as to praise the sun and sky of the California desert. “What more could we ask for?” he asked.

“I feel quite well on court,” Berdych said later, the faint traces of a smile still on his face. "And especially I would say physically. I just finished the match, but I can go another one. So that’s the important sign for me that I can be fit for the guys in the next rounds.”

Right, those pesky “guys in the next rounds.” That’s what it always comes back to with Berdych. At 27, he’s reached something of a career peak, and people who know him say he’s more comfortable with his game and his life on tour than ever. He’s also been at his career-high ranking of No. 6 since last fall, long enough that he appears to be getting comfortable in that rarefied air, and maybe even believing he can rise higher. Berdych led the Czech Republic to its first Davis Cup title last November, reached the quarterfinals at the Australian Open, and recorded his second straight win over Federer in Dubai last month. Now he’s back in the semis of a Masters event.

To go any farther, though, Berdych will have to face at least one, and most likely two, of those "guys”—i.e. the Big 4. As often happens, the first question Berdych was asked in his press conference here today was about the men who are ranked above him, the men who must star in his half of his nightmares by now. 

Q: You and David Ferrer are sort of the leaders of the pack, of the group who are trying to get in amongst the Top 4. How close do you think you are? Are you getting closer, do you feel?

Berdych, who has been asked this question many, many—many—times, seems to have devised a clever stock response.

“I think I’m getting closer,” he said, “but those guys are still running away. I don’t know how they do it, but it’s really, really tough, you know.”

Each of the top-tier players makes Berdych appear to be lacking in some facet of the sport. Djokovic and Murray are more flexible movers and defenders, while Nadal injects an emotionalism into his game that the brittle Berdych shies away from. Federer has a dozen shots and options not available to the Czech. Berdych's combined career record against the four of them is 14-41.

Berdych is said to have a conservative streak, and it's not hard to believe. Rather than bring in a well-known coach to change things up, the way Federer did with Paul Annacone and Murray has with Berdych's childhood hero, Ivan Lendl, he has preferred to run his own show. Berdych stuck with his friend and Czech Davis Cup captain Jaroslav Navratil for years. That’s not always the wrong way to go—Djokovic brought in outsiders for a time, but he had his breakthrough in 2011 after he went back to the core crew that knew him best. It seems that if Berdych is going to win, he’s going to do it his way; he knows what he's confortable with, and what he isn't. So far that has worked to a point, but “the guys” remain ahead of him, racking up major titles while he goes out in the quarters. Berdych appears to fear the potential downside of making major changes more than he believes in the upside.

Any further movement upward for Berdych will likely start with a Masters title like Indian Wells, and he has a chance at it this weekend. His fellow second-tiersman, Ferrer, won the final Masters of 2012, in Bercy; why can’t he win the first of 2013? A lot, according to Berdych, will depend on what happens between Federer and Nadal in their quarterfinal.

“My thoughts on that match,” Berdych said today, “I mean, I think everybody knows who I would prefer to play.”

Who is that, you ask? Berdych left no doubt. 

“With my style,” he said, “I can do a bit more damage to Roger, because I can take his comfort on the court away and he starts to be more under pressure...I’m not saying I’m the expert to beat him, but in the past at least it’s been working.”

Berdych takes rather a more pessimistic view of his chances against Nadal, a player he hasn't beaten in seven years. 

“With Rafa,” he said, “it’s very different. With his left hand and heavy spins, it’s very tough, especially in these conditions. If it’s going to be hot like this, it could be a very, very tough one.”

It would seem that, with Rafa’s time away and his lack of conviction about hard-court tennis, that Berdych would have an opportunity against either man in the semis. For now, though, it seems that one positive attitude out of four against “the guys in the next rounds” will have to do. 

Tonight Berdych says he will lie in bed and watch Federer-Nadal XXIX like the rest of us. He has looked up at those two men for years, and likely watched them in dozens of finals. This time, for once, he’ll be the one waiting for the winner. This time, he'll be the guy in the next round, too. 

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