As I watched Sam Querrey winning a first set tiebreak against Tomas Berdych in the third round of the U.S. Open from the front rows of a surprisingly sparsely populated Louis Armstrong Stadium, the man next to me, a first time visitor to Flushing Meadows who was recently initiated to the sport, asked me: “Will it be a big upset if Querrey wins?”
This, on the face of it, was no puzzle. Tomas Berdych was the 6th seed, and was infinitely more talented than Querrey, the unseeded, gangly American with a big serve and little else. But the answer, as I found myself stumbling through it, was considerably harder. Berdych had been on the cusp of breaking into the top four before, upsetting Roger Federer with a memorable performance in the Wimbledon quarterfinals in 2010, with the debilitating nature of the win causing some to even question Federer’s future. But, the Czech had struggled in recent times, bowing out of both Wimbledon and the Olympics in the first round, both times in straight sets, to Latvia’s Ernest Gulbis and Belgium’s Steve Darcis respectively. So here was Querrey, playing in front of his home crowd, and serving with real power and purpose—would it be an upset?
After Berdych started the second set with a brace of superbly constructed points, drawing the American out of the court with cleverly sliced first serves, and finishing with booming forehands, I answered the man: “Yes, it would. A pretty big one, in fact.”
As it turned out, Berdych won the next three sets with relative ease, went on to defeat Nicolas Almagro—whose hand he once famously refused to shake —with utter disdain before ending Federer’s incredible night-session record (22-0) at Arthur Ashe Stadium yesterday with an imperious display that glittered with the most gorgeous battering a tennis ball will ever take.
Having now watched all the top players from close quarters, thanks mostly to the good folks playing ushers on Armstrong, I can tell you that nobody strikes the ball as cleanly as Berdych does, when in full flight. He moves around the court very elegantly and very precisely for someone as tall as he is (6 foot 5), and when he makes contact with the ball, there are no second thoughts or forced subtlety. The result: the ball almost always comes out of the sweet spot on his racket head with a loud thwack that reverberates high into the bleachers. His serve, an exact and distinct motion is especially beautiful—he tosses the ball several feet above his head, and unlike many other players who meet the ball at the highest point of the toss, Berdych waits for it to make a few revolutions on its way down before leaping to pound it. All this raw, easy power, though, does not mean his game lacks nuance. On the deuce court, in particular, he loves to use the wide serve, as he did to great effect last night, pulling Federer out of the court, before using his monstrous forehand to dictate the rally.
“I think there’s something in my game that he doesn’t like,” Berdych said in the post-match press conference. “…Maybe brings him out of his comfort zone that he always likes to be in on court. He always likes to have time and he always like to be the one who is dictating the game.”
But as well as Berdych was playing, and as cleanly and powerfully as he was striking the ball, you can’t discount Federer’s almost inexplicable propensity for unforced errors last night. When Federer is in his elements, you’d be forgiven for wondering if it’s a magic wand he has in his hand; yesterday, for moments, it looked like he did, in fact, have a wand, only a skeletal, earthly piece of graphite. Time and again he shanked the ball off its edges, particularly off the forehand, which is his strongest suit.
In the first set tie-break alone, as Craig O'Shannessy pointed out in his analysis for The New York Times, Federer made four forehand errors, three of those unforced. His response to the early setback was even odder. Normally when under pressure, Federer can easily—almost like he’s flicking a switch—move from attack to defense, concentrating on keeping the ball in play, and making his opponent play the extra ball, aided by his graceful and often underrated court coverage. This time, though, he chose to go on an onslaught, trying to outhit Berdych from the baseline, which proved hugely imprudent—the depth and weight on the Czech’s groundstrokes made it near impossible for Federer to overpower him.
In the third set, once Berdych double faulted to hand Federer a break-back, the Swiss finally changed his tactics, moving to a more conservative game, cornering Berdych on his backhand wing, and focusing on extending the rallies as opposed to killing them with reckless forehands. But in the fourth set, having wrapped up the third with a string of neatly built points, Federer reverted to type, which certainly didn’t hurt from a spectator’s point of view. For a period of twenty minutes or so, it was tennis nirvana, an exhibition of astonishing hitting, with both players arrowing strokes from the baseline, exchanging winners one rally after another. Berdych even found himself flailing after Federer squeezed a backhand just beyond his reach following a breathtaking rally littered with hefty hitting. But just when you thought that the occasion will eventually get to Berdych, he upped his game a notch, once again finding fluidity from the back of the court. And just as he enhanced the angle and depth on his groundstrokes, Federer’s forehand once again unraveled—three unforced errors gave Berdych a break at 4-3, one that he accepted gleefully by holding to love.
It’s easy to read a lot into this defeat—Federer looked hapless at times, uncertain of his tactics, and seemingly lacked the wherewithal to overcome Berdych’s outrageous ball-striking. But he’s been here before; in 2010 not only was he knocked out of Wimbledon by a big hitter, but also in the French Open, where he was left bewildered as Robin Soderling teed off with unerring consistency from the baseline. A hitherto untouchable genius had been made to look a mere mortal. But he came back to not only win Wimbledon again, but to regain the number one ranking in arguably tennis’ most testing era. Don’t you make the mistake of writing him off again.