By Bill Simons
MELBOURNE, Australia—If you want a defiant tennis quote, where you gonna go?
To Vitas, of course. That would be the beloved old legend Vitas Gerulaitis, who after finally besting longtime nemesis Jimmy Connors in 1980, almost too-famously insisted, “Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row.”
But that was then. Now we say nobody—and we mean nobody—beats Tomas Berdych 18 times in a row.
Sure, some wondered: Now that Tomas has gotten engaged, will “The Berd” be caged?
He wasn’t today.
Swinging big, blasting free, Berdych made a diminished Rafa Nadal look like a guy who has played just a handful of matches since June.
But then again, too often the Spaniard is down and out Down Under. He stumbles terribly at the Aussie Open almost as much as he alights at the French Open, where he’s lifted the trophy nine times. Yes, here in Melbourne he prevailed in back-to-back classics against Fernando Verdasco and Roger Federer to take the title in 2009. But that was the exception.
After losing to Novak Djokovic in a marathon 2012 final, Nadal could hardly stand. He’s missed the tourney due to injury (2006) and illness (2013), and has suffered hefty losses to an inspired Fernando Gonzalez in 2007 and Jo-Willy Tsonga in 2008. He retired against Andy Murray in 2010, and had a quad hassle in 2011 against David Ferrer. Last year he struggled with hand and back injuries when he was upset in the final by Stan Wawrinka.
For the snake-bitten Spaniard, the usually benign Rod Laver Arena is a snake pit.
Still, few suspected the Czech veteran Berdych would check in with his A-plus game to upset a foe who has won 14 more Slams, not to mention their last 17 encounters. After all, Berdych has had some hassles in his career. The last time he beat Nadal, in Madrid in 2006, he stirred up a snake pit of his own when he mockingly waved a finger to tell the Spanish throng to shush.
Last fall, Berdych wanted to hire Andy Murray’s recent wonder coach, Ivan Lendl. Ah, it would have been such a perfect marriage. Matchmakers swooned. But the Czech legend got cold feet and essentially told the current Czech star, “No thanks—been there done that. I’m staying at home.” Berdych was left to go down Murray’s food chain, so to speak, hired the Brit’s former traveling coach and hitting partner Danny Vallverdu.
And then there was the one time Berdych reached a Slam final: Wimbledon in 2010. There, he appeared stiff and out of his league as he was clawed by a wild beast named Nadal, suffering a quick straight-set loss.
Today, however, too many of Nadal’s patented forehands were wild. They didn’t punish. His movement—usually such a weapon—was modest, not mercurial. He couldn’t plant his feet—too often he was pushed around by Berdych’s big forehand and no-nonsense, often brave serve. Plus, Rafa was rusty.
Afterward, when reporter Nick McCarvel told Rafa he’s played “a so-so match,” Nadal not-that-rudely interrupted: “No, not so-so, very bad. You can say [it], no problem.”
Yes Nadal had pulled out a Houdini-like comeback win in the second round over Tim Smyczek, Wisconsin’s modest sporting wonder with a triple-digit ranking.
But there’s a reason Berdych is No. 7 in the world.
Time and again, the newly-engaged veteran engaged his game plan. The theory: punish Rafa on the forehand side, take him wide when you have a chance, but also look to wrong-foot him. Vary the placement on your serve. And stay calm, because even on one leg—Rafa was grabbing his thigh—he is a threat. Remember, you are playing Nadal. He does things others only imagine.
But who imagined that Berdych—the king of the quarterfinals, who regularly wilts before the Big Four and is probably the best active player to never win a Slam—would soar and become a Berd of prey?
Berdych’s prayers were answered. He won the first set 6-2 and then (“Is that scoreboard lying ?”) actually bageled Rafa in the second set, handing him his first 6-0 loss in nine years.
Around the globe, Rafaholics wept. Surely now the Spanish bull would charge. When he finally won a game and snarled, the crowd roared. Berdych could have folded. He didn’t.
Instead, he stepped up and played serious power ball—in-rhythm, contained, and explosive. Czech-mate, Berdych.
His fist pump may be modest, but Berdych—who hasn’t lost a set all tournament—blasted savvy aces when he needed bail-out points. He repeatedly tripped up his foe.
Rafa doesn’t like awkward.
Plus, deep into the third set, the Berd was the word when it came to saving break points. He circled his considerable wagons when Nadal counterattacked, and didn’t panic when he blew sitter volleys, or when he couldn’t close fast and convert three match points.
Like a good corporate VP (or a circuit-wise 29-year old vet) the tall man stuck with the plan and won handily: 6-2, 6-0, 7-6 (5).
Of course, when he won, he didn’t exactly roll around in ecstasy.
No way, this is one placid middle-European with a neo-Lendl game face. Stone solid.
“If people want to see more emotion,” he told ESPN, “They’ll have to watch some other match.”
But nah, forget it.
This guy might not have that much sizzle, but he’s got plenty of steak. Just ask your local Rafaholic. And, of course, don’t you dare forget today’s mantra: “Nobody beats Tomas Berdych 18 times in a row.”