They should throw a semifinal and not invite Andy Murray, Roger Federer, or Novak Djokovic more often, given the dramatic nature and pleasantly unpredictable outcome of today’s clash in Madrid between Tomas Berdych and Stan Wawrinka.
One moment, Wawrinka looked spent—for good reason, this having been his ninth match in 10 days—and ready to give up the ghost after losing his early grip on the match and falling behind in the third set, 2-4, 15-40. The next, Wawrinka had run off 16 of the final 20 points to walk off the winner in just under two hours, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4.
Wawrinka was playing not just for a place in the final, but a return to the ATP Top 10—which is now guaranteed, no matter tomorrow’s outcome vs. Rafael Nadal. He won last week’s event in Oeiras, Portugal, and is playing as well as he was when he hit No. 9 in 2008. Ranked No. 15, Wawrinka was still nine notches down the rankings rung from Berdych, but then the tall Czech shares a unique if not particularly happy distinction with ATP No. 2 Roger Federer: They are the only two men in the Top 10 who haven’t won a tournament this year.
I’m not sure anyone was looking for that to change this week—not with the way Nadal has been playing. And at the outset today, it looked as if Berdych wouldn’t even scoop up the honor of being Nadal’s next victim. He served poorly and played listlessly from the start, and was broken in the very first game via a nifty cross-court forehand volley. Wawrinka made the break stick and he was spared the task of serving out the set when Berdych double-faulted at 3-5, ad-out.
Wawrinka had finished his barnburner of a semifinal with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at 1:45 a.m. this morning, and didn’t fall asleep until half-past three. Then he was up at 10 a.m., preparing for this match. The main question after the first set was, would Wawrinka keep up his energy and resolve? The men made it an interesting one, as Berdych began to mount a stirring comeback.
While Wawrinka had to work some to avoid trouble in his service games, Berdych suddenly developed a live arm and fresh legs at the start of the second set. He began to hold with ease, putting that much more pressure on Wawrinka’s serve. Wawrinka staved off the challenge for a while, partly with some terrific if erratic serving of his own. But he finally yielded to the onslaught in the ninth game of the second set when he punched a forehand into the net on Berdych’s second break point. Berdych served out the set, winning 15 of the last 20 points.
The real key to Berdych’s revivial was a combination of two statistics: He had gone from winning just 33 percent of Wawrinka’s second serve points (first set) to an impressive 59 percent. To make matters worse for Wawrinka, Berdych upped his success rate on his own first serve from 78 to a whopping 95 percent.
Wawrinka bounced back to stay level with Berdych for the first four games, but then he appeared to hit a wall. He fell behind love-40 in the fifth game, and blasted a wild forehand out after a brief rally to surrender the break. Emboldened, Berdych held the next game at 15 with three service winners and an ace. It was 4-2. When Wawrinka fell behind 15-40 on serve in the next game, he appeared doomed. Then we witnessed something like a tennis miracle.
Serving at 4-3, Berdych began to litter the court with errors, backhand as well as forehand. Wawrinka, who hadn’t seen a break point since the first set, now had two—and he made the second one count when he goaded Berdych into making a forehand error. We were back level at 4-all.
Three Berdych errors and a service winner to his opponents’ backhand allowed Wawrinka to hold the next game with ease, and suddenly all the pressure was on his clearly discombobulated opponent.
Berdych started that 4-5 game with a ghastly inside-out forehand error, smacked an ace, then blew a forehand approach and a rally forehand to give Wawrinka two match points. Berdych hit a service winner to eliminate one of them, but he had one more forehand error to donate to Wawrinka’s drive to get back into the Top 10 and magnanimously offered it up. It was an awful ending to one of the more surprising matches of the year.
Stat of the Match: What first serves Wawrinka put in the box were extremely hard to handle, but he undermined his cause by making just 52 percent of his first serves.