Rome: Berdych d. Djokovic

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If Tomas Berdych has any sense of humor, he’ll stroll into his press conference after posting an astonishing, 2-6, 7-5, 6-4 win over top-seeded Novak Djokovic in Rome and paraphrase the line once uttered by the late, great Vitas Gerulaitis.

Before the first question is fired at him, he’ll deadpan: “Nobody beats Tomas Berdych 12 times in a row.”

Yes, tennis fans, Djokovic entered this quarterfinal having won the last 11 matches between the two men, and for about an hour and-a-half it looked like he would routinely pocket No. 12. Despite serving at a most respectable 75-percent conversion rate, Berdych won barely half of his first-serve points—52 percent—a comment less on how ineffective he was than on how well Djokovic was returning, and how crisply the world No. 1 was hitting the ball and taking charge of every point at the earliest opportunity.

Djokovic rolled to a double-break, 6-2 win in the first set in just 32 minutes and a 3-2 lead in the second set. Keeping his foot on the gas, Djokovic hit a let-cord winner at break point in the next game to take a 4-2 lead, and it appeared that Berdych was doomed.

Djokovic built his lead to 5-2, after which Berdych produced a solid hold—and then unexpectedly broke the Serb’s serve. It was an inopportune time for Djokovic to begin complaining about an significant, irreparable divot that had appeared at one baseline, but he allowed the landscaping flaw get to him. From 30-all in that game, he responded to a Berdych approach shot with a passing shot error, and then stood by, helpless, when the Czech ended a long and intense rally with a backhand down-the-line winner.

Okay, Djokovic almost certainly must have thought, “No big deal.” But the break would put a gale-force wind at Berdych’s back, and he began clubbing exemplary rally shots, atomic serves and returns, and ground-stroke winners like a man possessed. He held the next game with an ace for 5-all, broke Djokovic for the second time running thanks to a backhand error, and won the set, 7-5, with a forehand that he ripped cross-court for a winner. It was the 16th point Berdych won out of the previous 21.

Occasionally you get a match in which there’s a single, distinct turning point, one that you could graph with a simple inverted “V.” This was one of those, although even a distracted and disgruntled Djokovic can give any player enough to worry about to make every game competitive.

As the match wore on, Djokovic grew visibly frustrated by the conditions. In addition to that baseline gopher hole, a swirling wind continually kicked up to blow crushed brick into the eyes of everyone on the court. Ouch! But Berdych kept his cool, and suddenly that dangerous first serve of his became much more effective. Not only did Djokovic’s return game drop, Berdych began to find greater angles each time he tossed and whacked the ball. 

The first man to crack in the third set was Djokovic, who fell behind 15-40 in the third game. Berdych failed to capitalize on his first break point, but forced Djokovic to make a backhand error to end another long rally and record the crucial break for 2-1. The next game produced four deuces, with Berdych struggling to get his first serve in the box. But he found his range in time and followed an excellent serve with a forehand winner to hang onto his break-of-serve lead, 3-1.

Berdych would face two more crises as he matched Djokovic forehand for forehand, serve for serve. In the eighth game, serving at 4-3, he built a 40-15 lead. But he failed to get his next first serve in, and paid when Djokovic nailed a forehand volley winner behind an excellent approach. Then Berdych whacked a double-fault. 

Suddenly it was deuce, and all Berdych believers groaned.

But he escaped with the hold, and rushed through Djokovic’s next game to reach his moment of reckoning. Berdych responded with some spectacular serving and reached triple match point (40-love) in no time. Then things got a little hairy.

Djokovic smacked an unreturnable service return off a second serve—40-15. Berdych dropped a ball before he served and had to chase it onto the court, then hit a near ace but was caught out of position, admiring it, and lost the point—40-30. A skittish Berdych missed the kind of inside-out forehand that had brought him to this juncture—Deuce.

Getting hold of himself before a monumental collapse of his own, Berdych hit a service winner to the forehand side at deuce, then cracked an ace (his ninth of the day) to finally end the match, after two hours and 22 minutes of often excellent big-boy tennis.

Stat of the Match: In the third set, Berdych converted a mediocre 56 percent of his first serves—but he won 23 of those 25 points (92 percent).

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