Roger's Cup, Toronto Masters: Ice-Berd

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Roger's Cup, Toronto Masters: Ice-Berd

That Thomas Berdych has firepower in his tennis has never been in question ever since 2004 when he beat Roger Federer for the first time in the Olympics. And the firepower was definitely on display against the same opponent today in Toronto. The question of that firepower causing mass scale destruction has—call it a paradox—always depended on the presence of Ice.  The absence of ice, the inability to keep cool in the toughest of moments has been the reason of why this firepower has turned to ash time and again.

This year, Berdych has shown enough of mettle to translate his raw potential into quantifiable results, his consecutive semis and final appearance in Roland Garros and Wimbledon respectively being one and his consecutive victories against Federer—one at the latter’s favorite turf at Wimbledon—being other. The word “consecutive” was the key here. Apart from Rafael Nadal, there is not one player who can boast three consecutive victories against the Swiss maestro and hence there was enough doubt whether the former-headcase nut would get the third time lucky as well.

Berydch knew it quite well, and he responded accordingly. The number of times he dig deep to keep this match an extremely fascinating affair was dramatic. He put away the five break point opportunities in the second set to finally push the match into the decider, played three courageous points at 0-40 down in the third set, and further played an exquisite service game to consolidate his break of serve at love. If this was not all, he survived the crowd whistling against him in between points, and even when the lady luck went against him in the opening point of the tie-break when a net-cord went against him, he fought deep and hard to come back on serve despite being two mini-breaks down.

If I were to characterize Berdych’s performance today, it was firepower from the outside and loads of ice from the inside—he was an Iceberg today. And the Iceberg was large and solid enough to break any ship down—even the Titanic.

And break he did. Federer’s ship may have been sinking lately, but the way he played out the first set, and most parts of the second—including the clutch serving at 15-40 down multiple times during the second set—he looked a different player today. Not the Federer of the old, but an old Federer with new weapons—rather strategies. He varied his first serves greatly by including a mix of heavily sliced kicking serves in addition to his bombs down-the-T (some of his first serves were in the 80s and yet they won him free points), obviously made greater approaches to the net, and used greater varieties on his forehand side than just trading blows with the big hitters as he was seen doing most of the year. And most importantly, he seemed more intent on attacking the second serves, especially running around his backhand and hit his authoritative forehand.

Strategies aside, what was heartening to see was the timely “Come On!” yells after winning a big point. Time and again, we have felt that Federer saves himself up for the slams now, and uses the Masters as tune ups. But if today’s match was an indication, he wanted this match as badly as he wanted the Wimbledon final last year. Maybe it is because he wants the Masters shields as badly, or maybe because it was Berydch at other side of the net—we won’t know.

It is tempting to see all the subtle changes in Federer’s approach and call it the Paul Annacone effect—his new “trial” coach—but I feel the changes have been more on part of Federer himself, the addition of Annacone is more about gaining some good company on your side, to gather some confidence. Annacone has spent far too little time with him to effect these changes. But actually that will be the role of Samrpas’ former coach after all.

Coming back to Berdych, it is easy to say that he cracked under pressure. That he should have effectively served out the match at 5-3. That he shouldn’t have been distracted by the crowd. It is much more difficult to see that he kept his composure almost all throughout the match and played a high quality match, and was denied victory only by the brilliance of the Swiss Man, even if he was shanking his forehands and backhands once in a while.

Berdych, the Ice Berg, was hit by the Titantic today, and there were equal chances for the Titanic to collapse, or the Ice Berg to break down. The tide kept on tilting one way to the other, but it was not the Ice Berg which broke today.  It was the Titanic which survived after hitting it. And there is no shame in that. Berdych knew that and he thought it better to still acknowledge the crowd with a smile when he had every reason not to do so. The Berdych of the old would not have done that.

I would be watching Berdych closely during the U. S. Open. But before that, I’m looking forward to tomorrow, when for the first time since U.S. Open ’08, we will have the Big-4 in the semis—Nadal vs Murray, Federer vs Djokovic. Predictions, anyone?

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