His Own Private Idaho

Wednesday, March 27, 2013 /by

MIAMI, Fla.—If you didn’t know better watching Tomas Berdych and Sam Querrey warm up for their fourth-round match on a bright and chilly afternoon on the Grandstand at Crandon Park, you could mistake them for twins and doubles partners, something like a Bryan brothers doppelganger, having a friendly hit on an off day.

Both men are tall—at 6’6” Querrey is a mere inch taller—and they were dressed nearly identically in dark shorts, white shirts, and white trucker caps. The dull ensembles seemed fitting; neither of these men is famous for his imaginative play. The outstanding difference was Berdych’s charcoal-and-pink Nike shoes. I guess even the Czech has a sensitive, softer side.

Furthermore, the men play a similar game built on the twin pillars of a smoking-hot serve and rolling thunder forehand. Knowledgeable fans settled in for a close and entertaining display of pyrotechnics. If you had a death wish, you might even have chosen a seat in the first or second row, where your appreciation of their firepower could be abruptly ended by a stray ball that leaves a “Penn” tattoo on your forehead.

Unfortunately, few things in tennis are as ugly as two guys with similar strengths having at each other on a day when one of them isn’t feeling it. And today, Querrey wasn’t feeling it. Not at all. The result was a vivid if exaggerated demonstration of why Berdych is a former Wimbledon finalist and the world No. 6, while Querrey must settle for the honor—qualified, as he well knows—of being the top-ranked American at a time when most of the stories about the U.S. game are obituaries.

As Querrey would say after enduring a horrific, 6-1, 6-1 beating in the 51-minute match: “I have said it a bunch: The goal is not to be the No. 1 American. I want to be one of the best players in the world. I have earned it, but those other guys are right behind me trying to ask for it back. But you know, for me I'd feel better, kind of like you said, if I was ranked higher with this No. 1.”

Berdych is not really the guy you want to be playing on a day when you can barely find the court with serve, forehand or backhand. He’s a solid returner who’s expert at applying pressure from the baseline and beyond. And for a man of his size and sinewy strength, Berdych has considerable defensive ability and quickness—a knack for demanding that a fellow big hitter like Querrey, whose feet aren’t quite as nimble as the Czech’s, hit one more shot.

The match began promisingly, though. Querrey blasted an inside-out forehand winner off Berdych’s first service return, and that was about it for the game—Berdych never got another return into the court. Berdych responded in kind, with a love game of his own. At 1-1, Querrey dialed it up even further, firing an ace and a service winner to win the first two points. Then, suddenly, it got ugly. Real ugly.

Querrey made four straight forehand errors, a couple of which threatened to send prudent ballboys and fans scurrying for cover. Nobody’s fool, Berdych then fed Querrey a few more forehands to mangle and consolidated the break.

“I came out the first few points, hit big forehands,” Querrey would say after. “Then I missed four forehands in a row, forehands that I went for—and should have gone for. They were sitting up for me to hit. But it was windy, maybe I should have gone for a bigger target.”

Maybe. But that’s no more in Querrey’s nature than in Berdych’s. And truth be told, Querrey had some reason to feel he might stay with Berdych in a straight-up punching contest. Berdych was 4-1 against Querrey going in, but he was stretched to 6-4 in the third in their last meeting, at the Shanghai Masters. What hope that result offered Querrey quickly evaporated as the games rolled by. “It was just tough to pick it back up from there (that early break), it just kind of got worse.”

One of the striking aspects of Berdych’s superiority in this clash was his ability to change the direction of the ball during a rally. Although both men lean heavily on the forehand, Querrey looked much more like a guy with a dangerous Plan A, but no real Plan B. He sets himself up to make the best use of the shot de jour, the inside-out forehand. And while he has good feel with his big hands and a versatile, wristy backhand, his fundamental strategy and mindset work against making the best use of them.

Berdych, by contrast, seems more capable of employing his basic two-handed backhand in a menacing way, and also seems more eager to attack the net. That gave him in a distinct advantage when the men occasionally wandered off the script that called for them to trade forehands until—presumably—one knocked the other silly.

Querrey hit just one drop shot in the first set, despite Berdych’s preference for playing from deep in his own court. But then, the first set lasted all of 23 minutes, so it’s not like either man had loads of opportunities to demonstrate his skills.

Sometimes, a first-set blowout has such a calming effect on the player on the wrong end of the score that he or she loosens up and manages to turn a potential rubout into a competitive match. This wasn’t one of those cases, even though the first three games of the second set all went on serve.

In the fourth game, Querrey shows stirrings of life, fighting off a break point and delivering an ace. He changed it up a little then, coming to the net behind an excellent approach, and hit a firm volley to the baseline. Berdych was there, though, to try the pass. Querrey had a fairly easy backhand volley to make, but he sliced it heavily and went for too much angle—and dropped the ball out. Two forehand errors gave Berdych the break; he wouldn’t lose another game.

“It was just one of those awful days,” Querrey said. “I missed routine forehand after routine forehand. My first serve percentage was at 40, I'm guessing (the figure: 39 percent). The more you miss, the harder it gets to, you know, get the ball in. It just kept getting worse. I want to put it behind me and move on to Davis Cup.”

As Querrey left the court, a lady sitting near the path to the exit called out, “Don’t worry, Sam, you’ll get him next time. We still love you.”

Querrey didn’t even lift his eyes. He was probably thinking it’s a good thing the Davis Cup tie next week is off the beaten tennis trail, in Boise, Idaho.

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