After barely surviving a tough quarterfinal encounter against Milos Raonic, Rafael Nadal will finally meet his match in a semifinal Sony Open clash with the underrated Tomas Berdych.
Nadal was dominant in Sony Open wins over Fabio Fognini and Denis Istomin, but he looked like a much different player when the competition level was ratcheted up. Raonic's big serve gave Nadal issues on the hard court in Miami, and Berdych happens to be a hard-court maven in his own right.
While Rafa was able to pull out a win over Raonic in three sets, it marked the first time that he had ever dropped a set to the young Canadian, according to Tennis View Magazine:
Rafael Nadal dropped a set to Milos Raonic for the first time, but he survives to seek his 17th straight win over Tomas Berdych tomorrow.— Tennis View Magazine (@TennisViewMag) March 28, 2014
Nadal has been dominant over the course of his career against Berdych, but he showed some chinks in the armor on Thursday against Raonic.
Berdych, on the other hand, has yet to lose a set in Miami. He was impressive in wins over both John Isner and Alexandr Dolgopolov, and he is displaying a skill set that could give Nadal fits.
If there were any questions about Berdych's serve, he answered them against Isner in the fourth round, when the Czech star outperformed one of the best servers in the world, as seen in this graphic courtesy of Tennis TV:
Provided Berdych can maintain a high-level serve against Nadal, it's possible that the favored Spaniard will struggle to keep pace.
Nadal is the No. 1 seed, while Berdych is just No. 7, but it can be argued that Berdych has had almost as good of a year as Rafa to this point.
In addition to a title at the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament in the Netherlands, Berdych boasts some impressive individual victories this season against the likes of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and David Ferrer.
He reached the Australian Open semifinals, losing to eventual champion Stanislas Wawrinka in four sets. Three of those sets went to a tiebreaker, so it's fair to say that Berdych is playing at close to an elite level on the hard stuff over the past several months.
According to Greg Garber of ESPN UK, Nadal admitted that he was fortunate to get past Raonic. He dug himself a hole in the first set, but some shaky play from Raonic moving forward bailed him out: "There is always the pressure to play against a big server like Milos. When you are a set down and only have one break, you do not have time to relax. I was lucky to have the advantage at the beginning of the second set when Milos double-faulted."
If Nadal gets off to a similarly bad start against Berdych, it is unlikely that he will make the same kind of mistakes that Raonic did. Although he isn't mentioned among the elites like Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray, there is no question that Berdych is among the best on this surface.
How will Nadal fare in the Sony Open?
On top of that, Nadal is the type of player who generally raises his level of play at the Grand Slams. While he would obviously love to win this tournament, it isn't a make-or-break situation for him.
The opposite is true for Berdych. He is the type of player who could gain a ton of confidence and momentum heading into Grand Slam season with a win over Nadal, so he'll be hungry and motivated to slay the dragon.
Beating Nadal won't be easy regardless of the effort level, but Berdych is playing well enough at this point that he is a very real threat.
With several high-profile upsets already occurring in Miami, Berdych over Nadal is poised to be the latest.
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