It's the cruelest swing of all, in a game that can be full of them. One moment, you're up 5-4 and serving for the match at Wimbledon, where a single service break can be insurmountable. It's match point, but something goes awry and you fail to convert. Deuce. You lose the next point, and you're now down break point—one measly forehand error or double fault away from dead even. You've slid from the summit of achievement all the way down into the valley of despair.
Tomas Berdych found himself in just that position today, in the fourth set of his match against Roger Federer, the defending Wimbledon champion and six-time singles titlist. Worse yet, he then served up a fault on first serve. The world, or at least that portion fixated on tennis, held its collective breath. And Federer could provide them no reason to exhale. As the ball approached his powerful, quick-strike forehand, his knees locked up and he more or less waved at the ball, sending it on a leisurely trip into the net.
It was a telling moment, and don't for a moment think it had anything to do with the back or leg injuries that Federer cited in his subsequent press conferences. It wasn't his back that failed, and it wasn't his leg. It was his nerve. That's how it is when a great champion's determination and courage begin to ebb. And, like the proverbial cuckold, he's always the last to know.
True, it isn't as if converting that break point would have guaranteed Federer yet another back-from-the-brink win of the kind he managed in his first-round match with Alejandro Falla. And it's not like Federer has morphed from the greatest player of all time into chump-of-the-month. But that point represents Federer's present dilemma, and it will stand as a handy symbol for the price Federer has had to pay for emerging from that cocoon of invincibility in which he's lived so long.
For most of this year, Federer has—consciously or not—operated on the premise that when it really matters, he'd be able to summon up not just his A-game, but his A-desire. His A-appetite. His A-determination.
Not true. What he conjured up today, when he most needed to perform like a storybook hero, was his A-humanity. He's just like you and me. Only better at tennis. As he would say, after an unconvincing if healthy bout of excuse-making (turns out he was "unlucky" as well as hurt), "I definitely gave away this match, I feel."
The man Federer "gave" it to saw it a little differently. Berdych was reasonable in his assessment of Federer's post-match comments, suggesting without malice that Federer was just "looking for excuses." He dismissed the bad-luck motif, and told us that all this stuff about the back and whatnot was news to him—when he'd read the newspaper in the morning, Federer said he felt "fine," and pointed out that despite Berdych's win over him at Wimbledon, Federer won "pretty easy" the last time the men met there.
Neither Federer nor Berdych is given to trash-talking, and Berdych understands that a multiple Wimbledon champion and owner of 16 major titles is unlikely to pronounce himself unworthy of beating a guy who's only made the semifinals at one other Grand Slam event—a month ago in Paris. But it's also unlikely that Berdych is going to melt back into the tour woodwork, just another big guy with a big serve and equally menacing ground strokes who happened to come up with a hot hand when it most mattered.
Greg Couch, an AOL.com columnist, asked a pertinent question of Federer: Are these big, strapping guys taking your measure, do you need to do anything differently to combat the threat they represent? After all, Berdych, who's now 2-0 against Federer in 2010, as well as Robin Soderling, who blasted Federer out of the French Open in the quarterfinals (thereby ending TMF's Grand Slam semifinal streak at 23) are among the top performers this year (Soderling lost today to Rafael Nadal, albeit while suffering from an injury that was confirmed by a televised close up of his heavily taped foot during an injury timeout).
The way Berdych and Soderling have been playing is bound to resuscitate the "big men will rule" predictions that began when Marat Safin astonishingly belted his way to the U.S. Open title back at the dawn of the new millenium, and which Roger Federer, with assists from Rafael Nadal and the unreliable Safin himself, stopped dead in its ontological tracks. But now that Federer appears increasingly vulnerable, and Soderling and Berdych have shown themselves capable of beating both icons, it's bound to re-emerge—with a vengeance.
Federer dismissed Couch's suggestion, saying, "Well, if I'm healthy I can handle those guys, you know. Obviously it's a pity that [Juan Martin] del Potro is not around, because I think he would have a run at world No. 1 or a run at another Grand Slam. It's unfortunate for him. But, you know, he's been playing well, and these guys do play very well. I played these guys 10 times. They're not going to reinvent themselves in a year, you know."
Funny that Federer should mention del Potro, who overwhelmed him in the U.S. Open final last September. Del Potro has been sidelined since the beginning of this year with a terrible wrist injury, and his return has been put off month after month. But put him in the company of Berdych, Soderling, and perhaps even Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, as a new wave of big men reviving an old theory. Perhaps Federer, in his signature passive-aggressive way, is not as oblivious to the big man theme as he made out. It's undeniable that in the last four Grand Slam events he's played, he's lost to one of the towering, physical players three times (on the fourth occasion, he beat Andy Murray for the Australian Open title in February).
Federer was talking about his sore back when he said, "It's just not nice when it doesn't go away and you can't play freely. That's what I was missing today." But it was not simply Federer's back that prevented him from assuming leadership in the match, and working his magic untrammeled. As he said a little later: "He [Berdych] played well when he had to. It was brutal for me. Every time he had a chance, he took it. On the break points—he played great on those. Then when I had chances early on, I was actually not too bad, I just felt like I got the unlucky bounce once in a while, you know. Thirty-all he got it on the line over and over again. I just felt like I couldn't create enough chances to really get the breakthrough. When I did have chances, I played poorly. It was just a frustrating match the way it all went."
With those words, Federer gave a fair description of exactly why it can be so hard to beat a big, powerful player who can lean on you, take your time away, irrespective of the state of your back, or leg. It's true on any fast surface, and particularly so here at Wimbledon. Sure, the courts have been slowed down, making life easier for ground-strokers and baseline players. But the impact on the serve has been less pronounced, and the serve remains a greater weapon on grass than any other surface.
So what of that critical swing at the end of the match, with Berdych going from match point up to break point down?
"I think it was one of my, like, toughest close up of a match when I was serving. I would say through all my career matches, this one was the toughest one to close up, this match against Roger, Centre Court in Wimbledon. But, you know, I handle it pretty well. I just closing up with my serve. I didn't lost it. And, you know, I mean, that's how it is. It was a really close match, about a few points. This day it just went on my side."
That's an honest and humble assessment from a man who made the round-trip from the peak to the valley and lived to tell about it. Luck had very little, if anything, to do with that exalted journey.