Serving for the second set at 5-3, Tomas Berdych finally had Rafael Nadal right where he wanted him: Chasing the ball behind the baseline. Then the streaking Nadal curled a crackling forehand winner down the line for triple break point. That shot left Berdych staring at the spot where the ball slashed against the purple court looking like a man worried a welt was about to swell into a wound.
Even when Berdych built a late lead, he looked like a man playing catch-up. You’d be wary too if you were facing an 11-time Grand Slam champion who had beaten you 11 times in a row. Bidding for his first win in more than six years against the Spaniard, Berdych briefly gained traction, but Nadal quickly created distance.
Managing the court and pivotal points with more confidence, Nadal continued his career-long mastery of Berdych in reeling off the final four games to score a 6-4, 7-5 victory and roar into the Indian Wells’ final for the fourth time.
It was a milestone moment for Nadal, who earned his 599th career victory in reaching his first hard-court final since falling to Novak Djokovic in the epic five-set 2012 Australian Open final. Nadal scored his 13th straight win, raising his record to 16-1 on the season.
Bidding to snap a losing streak to Nadal that stretches back more than six years, Berdych stayed on even terms through the first six games. Nadal began to lengthen his shots in the seventh game. Hitting off his back foot, Berdych netted a forehand to face triple break point. Playing a bit to cautiously, Nadal missed successive forehands. But Berdych badly yanked a forehand down the line wide of the alley with Nadal nearly off the court to drop serve and fall into a 3-4 hole. Working through a deuce game, Nadal crunched successive forehand winners crosscourt to consolidate for 5-3.
Two games later, Nadal was serving for the set at 15-30 when he was hit with a time violation warning. Nadal, who has been a vocal critic of the 25-second rule, barely blinked. Bending low, he belted a backhand pass crosscourt for 30-all, unloaded another forcing backhand to reach set point and buried a body serve into Berdych’s hip to force an errant return and seal the set.
Berdych, who had lost 31 of his prior 33 sets against Nadal, hit an ace wide and followed with a stinging serve winner to hold at 15 for a 4-3 second-set lead. When Nadal netted a backhand in the ensuing game, Berdych had his first break point of the match. A nervous Nadal slapped a second serve off the top of the tape that dribbled into the box, but he couldn’t capitalize on his second chance, dumping his first double fault to drop serve and face a 3-5 deficit.
It takes a tremendous amount of topspin and racquet-head speed to make the ball jump shoulder high to the 6’5” Berdych, but Nadal imparted so much spin at times Berdych looked bamboozled and struggled to make clean contact. When Berdych is striking with conviction, he wins cheap points on serve and return, but nothing comes easily for him facing the seven-time French Open champion. Nadal hammered away at Berdych's self-belief with successive forehand winners and lashed a penetrating backhand return to break back for 4-5, before holding on the strength of successive forehand winners for 5-5.
Nadal has tormented Berdych because he is the more agile athlete, he hits with more spin and he has access to angles his opponent does not. He can get to Berdych's legs; he's already in his head. Setting up for a routine mid-court smash, a tight Berdych mis-hit the ball off the top of his Head frame, the shot floated harmlessly long and Nadal had the crucial break for a 6-5 lead. Closure did not come easy: Nadal fought off three break points in the final game before converting his second match point. The two-time Indian Wells' champion will play for his 600th career win and a record-extending 22nd Masters championship in Sunday's final.