Rafael Nadal is always intense on a tennis court, fearsome even, but he rarely explodes. That was not the case here in the final stages of round-robin matches at the ATP World Tour Finals on Friday, as the world No. 1 eventually qualified for the knock-out semifinals with a 7-6, 6-1 victory over Tomas Berdych.
Andy Roddick did have an outside chance of going through as well but he needed to beat Novak Djokovic in straight sets. But, despite of career record of 5-2 over the Serb, Roddick never came close and went down 6-2, 6-3.
If anyone doubted how much Nadal wants to do well here after losing all three of his matches 12 months ago, those doubts were removed by the Spaniard’s reaction to an overrule when he was serving at 15-all, 5-6 in the first set. The Czech’s ball was called out on an overrule by umpire Carlos Bernardes not but quickly enough to stop Nadal returning the ball for an uncontested winner as Berdych had stopped playing.
As he played the ball, Nadal made a gesture with his arm but, afterward, denied that he had stopped the play by calling for a Hawk-Eye challenge. It was, in fact, Berdych who challenged and the result showed the umpire to be wrong. The ball was in. So Bernardes awarded Berdych the point which sent Nadal nuts as he felt the point should be replayed, given the fact that his final shot had been in.
Supervisor Tom Barnes was called on court and Nadal, furious by this time, called the decision "barbaric" (to use a loose translation) and then seemed to threaten to stop playing as he went to his chair. But he was up quickly and played the next two points with such ferocity that the score was 40-30 before Berdych knew what hit him. Nadal celebrated as if he had just won Wimbledon.
In his fractured English, Nadal did his best to explain the situation from his point of view afterward.
“I told (Barnes) he’s wrong,” he said referring to the umpire. “That’s something unbelievable. The point is still playing and I understand the rule. I understand the challenge. The ball was good. But if I put the ball inside it is impossible to lose the point. He’s a great umpire but everybody have a mistake. I think he did today. That’s all.”
A storm in an English tea cup? You could say that, but it revealed so much about what makes Nadal run. None of us who have been observing this game for decades can remember a player competing for each point of each and every match as if his life depended on it. But that is the intensity with which Rafa plays the game and the idea of being denied a point — or at least the chance to play for the point again — when he was so close to qualifying was, momentarily, more than he could handle. Nadal just needed to win that first set to be sure of a semifinal place.
Even so, there was no racket throwing because coach Uncle Toni had told him smashing rackets was unacceptable when he was 6 years old. “The first time you do it, I’m no longer your coach,” Toni Nadal told the little boy. So you have never seen Nadal do that and, almost always, his tightly coiled emotions are controlled.
Friday was an exception, and it was revealing. Berdych was playing well — better, in fact, than he had done against Nadal in the Wimbledon final. And the Spaniard was obviously feeling the heat. Hence the blow up. But once he held serve to take the set into a tie-breaker, which he won 7-3, everything was under control again and Berdych found himself being outplayed once more by a man who had not allowed him to win so much as a set in their previous seven meetings.
So now, the ATP has a dream ticket semifinal for a Saturday afternoon — Nadal against Andy Murray. Nadal laughed when he was told that Murray had said he didn’t think he had much chance of beating the world No. 1. He knew exactly what the Scot was doing.
“Trying to pull (out) some of the pressure, no? If you talk to the specialists of tennis, everybody can see the conditions are a little bit easier for Andy than for me here. The court is a little bit easier for him than for me. That’s what I can say. The pressure come back to him now.”
And, for the first time during a tense press conference, Rafa laughed.
Roddick couldn’t find much to laugh about after his lackluster performance against Djokovic although the Serb raised a smile when he walked on court wearing an eye patch. It was a humorous reminder of the trouble he had had with his contact lens while losing to Nadal on Wednesday.
But the patch came off and Djokovic was all business. Roddick had an early break point opportunity in the opening game but when he put a routine backhand into the net, the chance of laying down an early marker was gone. In retrospect, it was more than one point lost. In their previous three meetings, including the quarter finals of Cincinnati last summer, Roddick had not dropped a set. An early breakthrough might have started to play on Novak’s mind. But, in reality, the American didn’t have much left in the tank.
"I’ve been struggling physically for some time now," Roddick said afterwards. "I’ve played one good match here (against Nadal) and two pretty crappy ones and I need time right now. I need to take a rest and then start back in the gym and on the track before I go to the rackets. Last time I was able to train aggressively was in May. I’m just glad I managed to make this tournament and keep the streak (eight consecutive) going.”