MELBOURNE—Very little separated Tomas Berdych and Stanislas Wawrinka as they came into their semifinal here. Berdych was the No. 7 seed, Wawrinka No. 8. Wawrinka held an 8-5 lead in the head-to-head record, but none of their last five matches had ended in straight sets. Which isn’t surprising, because their styles, strengths, and weaknesses are also very similar. Both pound everything they see, with little variety and less remorse.
There was even less to separate the Czech from the Swiss tonight, in what was perhaps their most significant match to date. One point was all that came between them. When their three hours and 21 minutes on court together were over, Wawrinka had won 143 points, while Berdych had won 142. There had been one break of serve and five break points in total (Wawrinka earned four; Berdych just one); each man had committed 49 errors; and their winner and ace counts were virtually identical. Even their fastest serve speeds were the same, 134 M.P.H.
Yet Wawrinka finished ahead in the most important stat by a relatively wide margin: three sets to one, 6-3, 6-7 (1), 7-6 (3), 7-6 (4). The match was mostly won on serve, of course, which meant that their were no wild swings in momentum—it was a “let’s just get to the tiebreaker” type of evening. But there were subtle shifts in momentum, barely detectable advances and retreats that took entire sets to play out. Wawrinka started in control, Berdych pushed back in the second set, and the two were largely on even terms through the last two. Even half-chances at breaks were hard to come by. For the second straight match, whenever Wawrinka faced a hint of trouble, his serve was there to bail him out. He finished with 18 aces.
It came down, then, to the last two tiebreakers. And it came down, as it does so often in his big matches, to Berdych’s nerves. In the third-set breaker, he double-faulted to give up the crucial mini-break. Then, when he had a chance to get it back, he dumped an easy second-serve forehand return, a shot he belts for winners at will in practice, into the net. In the fourth-set tiebreaker, Berdych again double-faulted to hand over the mini-break, which he would never recover.
Wawrinka played with a shade more assurance and edge. With Stan serving at 4-4 in the third set, Berdych surged. He hit a forehand winner for 0-15 and looped another forehand that drew a shank from Wawrinka for 0-30; two points later he earned his only break point of the night with another forehand winner. Here, it seemed, the match would be decided. Wawrinka responded by firing a service winner and letting out his biggest “Come on!” of the night. Berdych smiled in annoyance; Stan had gotten under his skin and broken his rhythm. Wawrinka won the game and ran to his chair for the changeover. The tide had been turned back.
Wawrinka has made himself into a better player, yes. But the sequence above shows that he has also made himself into a better, gutsier competitor. That’s why this weekend he’ll be contesting, at age 28, his first Grand Slam final. The tattoo on Stan's forearm tells him to "fail better." When it comes to fails, this one has been epic.