Toronto: The quarterfinals.
Daytime fiery heat dissipates into balmy evening warmth.
Blue sky fades away to azure, purple, navy.
Flags that fell in primary-color folds lift with the fluttering breeze in salute to a pair of warriors.
Massed ranks glow in readiness for the battle, allegiances brandished in red and blue and white.
Two upright, steely combatants, brandishing their weapons of choice, step up to the line: Roger Federer and Tomas Berdych.
The field of conflict is tranquil blue, edged in calming green. It belies the heat of the coming conflict and the brutality of the engagement.
For a 12th time, these two men stand face-to-face.
On the Swiss side, the face is sun-bronzed, angular, dark eyes set deeply below heavy brows.
On the Czech side, latte-pale, youthful lines set off aquamarine shards of eyes shadowed under the protective shield of a white brim.
On the Swiss side, maturity, experience, and reputation sit within a new fallibility. Eight times the victor, but the loser of their last two battles: at Grand Slam Wimbledon and Masters Miami.
On the Czech side, eager youth, growing confidence, keen ambition, riding high on consecutive wins over the master.
The Swiss swings into battle with vigor and intensity dressed in honey-smooth disguise. A fluid wave of the body, and his serve is knifed down the line, sweeps away like a comet, or flies from the blue acrylic like a jumping bean.
He glides to the net, carves down a volley, targets the lines like an exocet. He fires backhands in a blur of his arm towards corners and sides and opponent. He lasers forehands in winner after winner, side to side, straight and angled, topspun and flat.
As the Czech swings into serve, the Swiss feet begin their dance of death, stealing inside the baseline to pick off the ball with eagle-eyed sharpness. Time stands still as Federer's racket makes perfect contact, then time races to catch up as Berdych sees, too late, the missile’s trajectory.
Not once, in that first set, does the Czech take either first or second point on his serve. Not once does he achieve a break point. Not once does Federer lose a point on his first serve. The Swiss breaks the Czech in the sixth game and marches to easy victory, 6-3.
But big, bruising Berdych knows he has the beating of the older man, the shorter man, the less powerful man. He knows because he beat him the last time, and the time before. He beat him as a teenager in the most gladiatorial of settings: Athens; the Olympics.
Berdych knows he has a psychological edge and the physical armory. He knows he is rising the ranks and his opponent is slipping the ranks.
He finds a stronger serve, and finds it more often. He injects pace and penetration into his returns like the point of a stiletto between the ribs. He pierces with enough precision to extract break point after break point. His battered victim withstands the onslaught and turns on his attacker like a cobra, injecting enough venom to draw two break points in return.
Federer fails and Berdych persists. Federer flounders into double faults and Berdych breaks through to take second blood, 7-5.
It brings distant memories of a near-identical score in that faraway Greek encounter. It brings echoes of Miami 2010: One set apiece, blood on the court, shock in the atmosphere, whispers in the wind. The young pretender ready to snatch the sceptre, the old defender unwilling to submit.
Berdych’s chilli-red chest swells with the moment, he sets his jaw in determination, grits his teeth for the coupe de grace. It rushes towards him as the score accelerates to 5-2.
Every point won by the sinuous Federer draws a deep, chilling roar of defiance. Every line missed draws a confused shake from his downcast head. His chances come and go—three of them—while the single Berdych opening is seized, and his hand reaches out to grasp the Federer sceptre. Too soon.
As the sky deepens to black and the lights flood into the heaving bowl of fans, the noise rises in waves of encouragement. 5-3.
Federer is not ready to acquiesce again.
He steps meters into the court to receive the increasingly wayward serve of the Czech. Sometimes he over-hits, sometimes he mistimes, but sometimes he strikes home. It is brave and bold, fearless and furious.
More break chances come and go—another three of them—until the crowd can take no more. Federer puts them out of their misery at the seventh time of asking. 5-4.
Berdych is still not done.
He edges to 30-15, then to deuce. He’s points away from victory, his eyes are wide in concentration. But Federer brushes away the Czech’s outreached fingers and draws his reputation a little more tightly around his shoulders. 5-5.
Federer has been here before, has closed the gap once before, and has failed once before. Berdych serves and throws down the gauntlet once more. 6-5.
Memories of Miami fire through the muscle-memory. They reached a tie-break then. They reach a tie-break now. 6-6.
Each has the other by the throat, and the Berdych reach is long. But Federer wants this, needs this. He faltered in the second set. This time, he runs to a 4-0 lead. He advances to a 5-2 lead. He falters again. 6-6, 5-5.
It’s now or never. He hits the famous forehand, clips the line, and wins the point. He deploys the infamous subtle slice to draw his man in, and forces the error. Victory to Federer 7-6.
This is just the beginning for the bloodied Federer. Ahead in the semifinal lies the man who has climbed above him on the rankings ladder, Novak Djokovic.
Beyond that lies the even greater mountain of defending champion Andy Murray or a supreme Rafael Nadal boasting 50 match wins in this year’s quiver of arrows, and with his longbow trained on a fourth consecutive Masters title.
Federer, though, has his sights on his own prizes.
This latest battle has chipped away some rust, burnished up some gold, sharpened the knife like a whetstone.
He’ll win, or go down fighting.
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