It was an afternoon of surprises in Rome. First Tomas Berdych came back from a set and 2-5 down to beat Novak Djokovic for the second time in 15 tries. Then David Ferrer turned what looked to be a regulation grind-out loss to Rafael Nadal into a dynamite display of all-court tennis. Unlike Berdych, though, Ferrer couldn’t hold off the inevitable. Nadal improved his record to 19-4 against his countryman, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2, to advance to the semifinals.
The culprits, as they usually are for Ferrer in these matches, were the big points. In this case, those were the break points: He converted just three of 16. That alone was the difference in the first set. Ferrer was 0 for 6, while Nadal was 1 for 1. More telling was the way each man played those break points. At 1-2, Nadal came up with a dipping backhand pass under pressure to save one; two games later, he saved another with a wide serve that caught the sideline, which he followed with a down-the-line forehand winner. Ferrer, by contrast, faced with a break point at 2-2, pushed a routine backhand wide. Despite having been two points from beating Rafa in Madrid last week, it looked like Ferrer had even less confidence that a breakthrough was possible today.
However he felt to start, though, Ferru quickly shook off any first-set disappointment. He played better, cleaner, more aggressive tennis from the start of the second. With Rafa serving at 0-1, Ferrer hauled off on a forehand return for a winner. That shot seemed to free him up. He broke with another caution-to-the-wind forehand approach, and kept rolling through the next two games to build a 4-0 lead. Ferrer was on top of the baseline, and, for once, was a step, a shot, and a thought ahead of Nadal in the rallies.
Now it was Rafa’s turn to respond. He crept back into the set to get to 3-5. In that game, Ferrer reached set point and double faulted, while Nadal came up with a brilliant bit of deception—seemingly a sitting duck at the net, he feinted to his left, coaxed Ferrer to go down the line with the pass, and then reached out for a sharp-angled backhand volley winner. When Ferrer netted a backhand to hand over his serve, it looked like this one was going to end in straights.
Except that this time it was Ferrer’s turn to get a bit of (temporary) luck, and to make an opportunistic play of his own. At 30-30 on Nadal’s serve at 5-4, he hit a net cord winner. On set point, he made two seemingly impossible stab gets of very good Nadal smashes, tracked down a Rafa drop shot, and passed him at the net. We were going three, and a second shocker seemed to be in the cards.
The quality of play had risen through the second set, and it continued its ascent at the start of the third. Fans came for a baseline grind, only to see a jailbreak for the net break out. Nadal approached 37 times (winning 27), and Ferrer 36 times (winning 22), high counts for both over three sets. It was as if neither could break the other guy down from the baseline, so each went to the drop shot as soon as he could. What followed were cat-and-mouse scrambles at the net; if you’ve watched any of Nadal over the years, you knew that, despite his bruiser’s reputation, he was going to win the majority of the touch-craft battles. He gradually began to wear Ferrer down, to answer his opponent’s best with something better.
Nadal held off two break points at 0-1, and then broke, on his third chance, at 1-1. Surrendering his serve broke Ferrer for good. Rafa usually beats Ferrer at his own baseline game; today Ferrer adjusted, and Nadal beat him at his adjusted game.
Nadal, with three-set wins over Gulbis yesterday and Ferrer today, has done a lot of running this week, and if he’s going to win in Rome, he’ll do a lot more this weekend. The good news for Rafa is that he’s into the semis tomorrow; the better news is that he’ll face Berdych, rather than Djokovic, when he gets there. Nadal has won his last 13 matches against the Czech.