Nadal d. Berdych 6-2, 3-6, 6-3
My favourite Rafa pic until further notice.
It’s been a long time since I’ve rooted for Rafa so strongly. If anything I’m more interested in what Berd can make of the talent he only now seems to realise he has. But when you’re watching a match with players you’re largely uninvested in, something strange often happens.
Ever so gently, almost without you knowing it, the forces of loyalty begin to take shape, coiling themselves surreptitiously around you, manipulating your emotions and senses on almost every level.
How this happens remains largely a mystery - don’t get taken in by anyone that claims to know how it works. What is indisputable, is that by the end of it you’re rooting for one of the two players like your life depended on it.
That’s where I was early on in the final set.
Rafa started off well. Very well. Berd wasn’t playing badly but simply wasn’t allowed to settle. Then in set two, almost as inexplicably as Petko vs Pova at the same position, it all started to go horribly awry.
A neck/shoulder problem turned out (apparently) to be at the bottom of it – with Rafa receiving treatment during several of the subsequent changeovers.
My own feeling (he says authoritatively) is that the injury (assuming we can call it that) was less of a problem than Rafa’s own reaction to it – an electrifying anxiety that seemed to be born as much of appreciating the very real threat posed by Berd, as in being unable (perhaps by the shoulder) to respond in the way he would have liked.
In so far as the neck/shoulder was a problem at all, it it seemed to be in the way it elicited that crazy crippling anxiety in him – it all but caused him to seize up, in a manner not dissimilar to the way Petko did vs Pova.
All very “chicken and egg”, all remarkably presumptuous of me I know, but there it is.
However wavering and indeterminate my loyalty was at this point, what happened at the beginning of the third set decided firmly in Rafa’s favour: down 0-40 on his serve, and lacking all confidence in a way I’ve not seen in over a year, he pulled out three of the biggest serves you might ever see – it was all rather reminiscent of the USO last year (when Rafas newly unveiled serve was arguably the story of the event), except that this time it was arguably his opponent that had the upper hand, and it was Rafa the one struggling with confidence (and, as it seems, injury).
And that, further underscoring everything we’ve seen from Pova this week, is what Champions do.
Berd looked befuddled and bruised. He continued, to his credit, to play as well as he had been to this point (arguably as well as during his best moments at Wimbledon last year), but the little burst of energy and belief that induced in Rafa proved to be all that was required to get the break and close it out 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 - all, interestingly, with that same jarring blend of big serving and dicey, sub-par groundies.
There’s not, frankly, more than about 3 (or at most 4) players – male or female – that could have turned the match around playing as atrociously as Rafa was yesterday or Pova the day before.
We’ve still a few matches to go, but if there’s a theme emerging in Miami, it’s one of ‘true grit’ – which, contrary to prevailing, overwhelmingly hormonal opinion, only really comes into its own when the truly great one is stripped of precisely those dazzling assets that actually only appear to make them great.