INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—“He’s 25 and ranked No. 53,” one of the spectators near me said to his friend. “There must be something wrong here.”
The 25-year-old in the sentence above was Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut. What was wrong? He was up a break in the third set against No. 4 seed Tomas Berdych. More than that, Bautista Agut had outplayed the Czech for all but a few games in the match. He had broken serve early, suffered a brief spell of bad form for four games at the end of the first set, and then immediately recovered to win the second easily and stay on top in the third.
Bautista Agut doesn’t so much hit the ball as cup it; the product is a very flat, driving, hard-to-handle shot. Combine that with Berdych’s equally flat strokes, and the result was a match of pounding, corner-to-corner rallies leavened with little spin, flair, or variety. The surprise was that Bautista Agut was the one dominating these rallies. His cross-court and inside-in forehands were especially devastating; if the ball wasn’t flying past Berdych for a winner into the corner, it was forcing him to lunge futilely after it.
When, the fans next to me had good reason to wonder, was all of this going to end? While Bautista Agut had a 1-1 record against Berdych coming in to this match, his fairly advanced age and fairly mediocre ranking said the chances of a repeat victory were slim. And there were plenty of moments in the third set when it looked like Bautista Agut would come down to earth—or gag, if you prefer that term.
Up 3-1, with a point for an insurance break at 30-40, Bautista Agut took a routine second serve from Berdych and nervously drilled a backhand return into the net. Berdych held.
In the next game, serving at 3-2, Berdych had two break points to level it. On the first, he hit a backhand an inch wide; on the second, hit a forehand an inch long. Bautista Agut held.
Finally, serving at 4-3, Bautista Agut was broken on a strong Berdych forehand. It appeared that, after two hours, order had finally been restored—or Bautista Agut had wiped out at the finish line, if you prefer that metaphor. But Berdych opened his next service game, at 4-4, by sending a backhand long, and he hit another one long to hand his grateful opponent the break back. The Czech had one more chance to survive, when he earned a break point at 4-5, but he pulled up on a forehand and dropped it into the net. Bautista Agut, age and ranking and the fans in the stands be damned, had his 4-6, 6-2, 6-4 win.
“First of all,” Berdych said in summation later, “I need to say that he really handled the tough situation today really well. But secondly, more important to me was that anything I touched today was bad and wrong.”
“So really,” he continued, “just to recap it, definitely my worst match that I had this year. That’s it, you know.”
It was indeed a disappointment for Berdych, who is on the verge of passing David Ferrer for a career-high ranking of No. 4, and has had the makings of a career-best season so far in 2014. For Bautista Agut, it’s confirmation that his win over Juan Martin del Potro at the Australian Open this year wasn’t just caused by Delpo’s aching wrist.
The Spaniard, who said he “only tried to put the ball in the court” when he served for the match, moves on to play the winner of Jarkko Nieminen and Florian Mayer. With his upset of Berdych, and Del Potro’s withdrawal due to injury today, the bottom half of the men’s draw here just had a sizable hole punched in it, one which Novak Djokovic will look to walk through later this week.