Rafael Nadal and Tomas Berdych each came to their quarterfinal in Madrid with a mission. Those missions, not coincidentally, both revolved around the Czech’s backhand. Berdych’s goal was to use his backhand return to push Nadal to the sides of the court and get on top of Rafa’s service points. Nadal’s goal was, anytime he could, to force Berdych to take one hand off of his two-handed backhand and slice it back. Whenever that happened, Rafa knew he had done his job, and the point would almost surely be his.
This "duel," such as it is, has been playing out for nearly a decade, and for the 17th consecutive time it was Nadal who came out on the winning end of it. As usual, Berdych had enough success with his first-strike tactics to briefly throw a scare into Nadal. As usual, Rafa survived the scare with some expert defense, got a grip on the rallies with his forehand, and never let go. That shot had been letting him down of late, but today he fired 16 winners with it, enough to beat Berdych 6-4, 6-2 and end, at least for this afternoon, any talk of a decline on dirt. "Nobody," Vitas Gerulaitis claimed, "beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row." Tomas Berdych, sadly, can't say the same thing.
Fridays had been black for Rafa so far this spring: Twice he had suffered upset losses on that day, to David Ferrer in Monte Carlo and Nicolas Almagro in Barcelona. A defeat at the hands of Berdych, a man Nadal hasn’t lost to since 2006, would have been one more sign of the apocalypse. And for a millisecond in the first set, it looked possible. Serving at 2-3, Nadal went down 0-30. Berdych was in control of the next rally, as he pushed Rafa wide to his forehand side. Nadal defended, as he typically does, crosscourt. Berdych didn’t do enough with the approach, and Nadal caught him with a sliding backhand pass. With that shot, 0-40 turned to 15-30. Nadal held, and the momentum swung in his direction.
He capitalized on it in the next game. Down break point, Berdych hit perhaps his best kick second serve of the match. Nadal, chasing it wide of the doubles alley, decided not to defend crosscourt this time; instead, he threw caution to the wind and flung a forehand return down the line that surprised Berdych and flew past him for a winner. From there, Nadal's forehand flowed as Berdych’s head sank. Down 2-4 in the second, Berdych didn’t bother to run after a Nadal backhand at break point. That’s what 16 straight losses to a player will do to your self-belief.
Nadal’s numbers were uniformly solid: he hit 24 winners, committed 14 errors, made 76 percent of his first serves, and did a good job of mixing his service locations to keep Berdych from jumping on those backhand returns. Rafa will move on to play either Roberto Bautista Agut or Santiago Giraldo in the semis, and try to take another step back from the clay-court apocalypse.