Australian Open: Tomas Berdych finally beats Rafael Nadal

When Rafael Nadal followed Roger Federer out of the Australian Open on Tuesday, losing in straight sets to Tomas Berdych, an excellent player who nevertheless had not beaten him in their previous 17 encounters, a pall fell over the tournament, but not over the Czech’s ever-smiling face.

For two sets, Nadal played as if in a trance, winning just two games in two sets in the first hour, before fighting as hard as his obviously malfunctioning body enabled him to in extending the agony to a tie-break in the third. He was sluggish, non-plussed, under-powered and thoroughly outclassed.

After two hours and 33 minutes of absorbing theatre, Berdych wrapped it up 6-2, 6-0, 7-6 (7-5) to go through to the semi-finals. He was so clearly the better player on this day of days for him and might yet reach his second slam final.

It was a triumph too for Dani Vallverdu, who left Andy Murray in November to join Berdych as his chief coach. As the delighted winner said, “He just mentioned a couple of things to me. I’m so happy with the work we’ve done together. It works well. We set up the greatest plan for today’s game and it worked pretty well.
“I was definitely ready for it. I stuck with my plan all the way. That was the biggest difference from the [previous] matches. I started pretty well but you have to keep going to the last point against Rafa. He’s a great fighter and he tried to come back in the third. You are playing with one of the greatest tennis players ever, so you just have to keep calm, even at 5-4, whether you are ahead or not.”
For eight of the nine years they have shared a tennis court, Berdych has stepped up to the mark against Nadal knowing, in all probability, the merciless, magnificent Spaniard was about to be take him to pieces. After a few early wins, all on hardcourt and away from the slams in Cincinnati, Toronto and Madrid, Berdych bore the look of a condemned man, even in his only appearance in the final of a major, when Nadal beat him in three sets at Wimbledon in 2010.

In all that time, Berdych won just a single set against Nadal, and perhaps there was the key: that small victory came in the first in their quarter-final here five years ago.

When the draw for the 2015 Australian Open dictated that they would meet again at the same stage, it was reasonable to assume Berdych would have to do something special to avoid another public execution. And that is exactly what he did.

Indeed, so completely did he turn the tables on his perennial tormentor it was impossible not to feel sorry for Nadal as Berdych ran him ragged in the first hour. Nearly every shot went where it was intended, while very few of those coming the other way inconvenienced him. Berdych kept Nadal pinned deep, like a butterfly on a wheel.

Nadal, who had dizzy spells in a five-set struggle against the American qualifier Tim Smyczk, and admitted he nearly quit several times, played here as if someone had spiked his precious courtside water bottles. His legs refused to answer his call time and again, as Berdych thrashed easy winners to all parts of the court.

Nadal’s service statistics for the tournament sent mixed signals, few of them encouraging: 45th in aces (17) but sixth in double faults (18); 18th for first-serve percentage (67%), but 38th for winning his first serve (74%) – and 44thin break points saved (19 of 29).

While not utterly dire, these numbers suggest anxiety with ball in hand, and a lack of solidity in defence. All those weaknesses were manifest on Tuesday.

Nadal saved two match points to force a third-set tie-break, but it was no more than a commuted sentence. Berdych went 4-1 up and Nadal saved one of two match points to get back to 5-6 but was powerless to return the final withering serve down the middle. His head dropped in resignation as the ball drifted harmlessly into the net.

The Czech, recently engaged, could not have been happier after shedding all that baggage, and in a fittingly important setting.

Credit: Kevin Mitchell /Guardian Sport