Super-charged Rafael Nadal reclaims his Wimbledon title
When Tomas Berdych walked onto Centre Court on the last day of Wimbledon 2010, it marked the first Grand Slam final appearance in this 24-year-old’s most successful year.
With a semi-final place at the French Open behind him, Berdych -a big man with a big serve and an equally big forehand -was also riding a wave of confidence from his four-set defeat of Roger Federer in the Wimbledon quarter-finals and his even more comprehensive dismissal of Novak Djokovic in straights in the semis.
Berdych comes from a country that has produced many great players during tennis’s Open era, the Czech Republic. But eight-time Slam winner Ivan Lendl never managed to win in London, and the greatest Wimbledon champion of all, Martina Navratilova, achieved her wins under US citizenship.
So Berdych could become only the second Czech ever to win the most-revered of singles titles -and the first, Jan Kodes in 1973, was in the Royal Box to urge him on.
But of course facing him was the man who is currently the best player in the world.
The force of nature that is Rafael Nadal came to Wimbledon with the clay Slam -three Masters and the French Open back-to-back -in his pocket and defending the title he had won against Federer in 2008.
Nadal entered this final carrying just one loss in his last 31 matches, and that loss was during his rushed attempt to squeeze in some grass-court play at Queens just days after his French triumph. The Nadal-Berdych head-to-head was hardly cause for optimism for the Czech, either. The Spaniard had won their last three meetings, including on the grass at Wimbledon in 2007.
The most worrying prospect for Berdych, however, was that, as good as Nadal had been in winning in 2008, he has since become a better all-round player. His serve is formidably strong and looping, he readily attacks the net where he can pull off every type of volley, and he has mastered a lethal sliced backhand, a key tool in the armoury of most grass-court champions.
What’s more, the fitness and power of the Nadal physique, and his aggressive and focused mindset, are unparalleled in the modern game. So there was really only one question ahead of the final, and that related to the infamous knees that had niggled him enough to need on-court treatment during the first week.
Nadal wore strapping on both thighs during the second week, both in practice and in this match. If Berdych could stay with Nadal through the early stages, he might just stand a chance.
The first set did, indeed, show promise. Berdych very soon hit his 99th ace of the tournament in his second service game, and things remained balanced until 3-3. That infamous seventh game, however, saw Nadal move up a gear like a well-oiled machine injected with adrenalin, and he broke the Berdych serve.
The Czech’s 100th ace did not come until serving to stay in the first set, 5-3 and 0-30 down, but it was not enough to stave off the torrent of huge looping forehand winners from Nadal. First set over, in a fraction over half an hour.
Unless Berdych could up his first serve percentage beyond a poor 48%, his goose was cooked: It is the bedrock of his game. He did, cranking it up to equal Nadal’s at 64%, and the aces started to come a little more often. He pressed Nadal hard on the Spaniard’s first service game, creating a couple of break points, but Nadal snuffed out these fleeting chances with wide swerving serves and a bold net attack.
For the 10 minutes that this first game lasted, there were moments of hope for the Czech. To his credit, Berdych maintained real pressure throughout the set, but on the crucial points, the ones that make the difference between breaking serve or not, Nadal’s focus was irresistible. He converted his first break point opportunity at 6-5, and the second set was over.
In the third game of the third set, Berdych got another break chance, and achieved several more deuces by attacking the net. Though the Berdych attitude remained strong, he could not break through the ever-improving Nadal serve -80% for the set -and it remained honours even until the crucial point at which Berdych had to serve to save the match.
Nadal, with a certain inevitability, went for the jugular, and took the match at the first time of asking: 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 in a little over two hours.
That makes eight Slams for the extraordinary Nadal. Now the speculation begins anew: just how many more Slams can he win?
It seems not long ago that many experts were predicting his career was on the skids, that his knees could not survive much longer. But that was to underestimate the man from Majorca.
This time last year, he walked away from the defence of his Wimbledon title to get his body back into prime condition. He reworked his game, improved the shots that would help him keep matches shorter and faster, and his 2010 season on the European clay has reasserted his dominance.
He is playing, arguably, the best tennis of his career: varied, powerful, tactically astute, and built on a body and mind that seem, for the moment at least, indestructible.
It is a fearsome prospect for the men now trailing in his wake in the rankings.