It’s how major titles are won.
It’s how high-level success is built and sustained.
It’s how a lofty place in a sport’s pantheon is established.
Backing up results — not just being good on one day, but the next day, and the day after that — separates the hot player on a feel-good run from the enduring, persistent, tested champion.
The laws of averages dictate that athletes will have good days and bad ones. When athletes enjoy a good day against an elite opponent, they need to be able to block out the memory of that win if it doesn’t come in the final game of a team-sport season or the final match of a tournament. Athletes need to move past the feel-good moments as well as the awful ones, at least in the present tense. While a tournament is still in progress, an athlete depends on his or her ability to clear the mind and allow the body to flow, performing necessary actions seamlessly and without hesitation.
Tennis players know this as well as any athletes on the planet. Good players might enjoy one blessed afternoon when everything goes right against one of the kings of the sport. Great players follow up that victory with another one to vie for a championship.
This is where the career of Andy Murray has transcended the careers of those just below him in the ATP Tour pecking order. It’s also where the career of Tomas Berdych has failed to rise to the higher plateau that’s proven to be so elusive over the years.
We saw exactly why on Thursday night in the first of two men’s semifinals, the second one to come on Friday in Melbourne between defending champion Stan Wawrinka and world No. 1 Novak Djokovic.
The stakes are enormous in any major-tournament semifinal, but they carried so much weight for both Murray and (especially) Berdych in this match. A fundamental appreciation of this specific clash begins with an understanding of how Murray’s career fits into the larger story of this era of men’s tennis.
Murray’s career will not be viewed as favorably as the three giants who stand above him in this era: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic. This is not a criticism of Murray. It’s merely a reflection of how richly those other three men have achieved. Going by several fundamental measurements, this era has been defined by a “Big Three” more than a “Big Four.” Tennis fans and historians can readily appreciate this. There’s no need for explanation when the totals of major-tournament titles and final appearances are what they are. Murray’s numbers pale in comparison to Djokovic’s, and the Serbian superstar’s stats pale in comparison to what Federer and Nadal — at the top of the mountain in this era and on an all-time scale — have managed to accomplish at the majors.
Yet, while Murray can very properly be seen as “a notch below the Big Three,” there are quite a lot of ways in which he is just as rightly seen as a member of a “Big Four” in modern ATP tennis.
He IS a multiple major champion.
He IS a player who consistently reached major semifinals with his Big Three competitors for several years.
He IS a player who has accumulated stacks of titles at the Masters 1000 level, plus many more semifinal appearances in those tournaments, which are also markers of next-level excellence on tour.
He IS an Olympic gold medalist in singles, enabling him to say he’s claimed a prize that Federer and Djokovic have failed to grab.
Murray’s accomplishments in men’s tennis might not be on par with what the “Big Three” have done, but they’re far greater than everyone else in the sport over the past several years. Stan Wawrinka had a career year in 2014, but Murray has been knocking at the door for several years, reaching the pinnacle in both 2012 and 2013 — first in New York at the U.S. Open, then at Wimbledon, breaking that larger-than-life 77-year championship drought and securing immortality in the United Kingdom.
Murray, in short, is an “in-between” player, one who exists between larger collections of players in this era of men’s tennis. Given that his 2014 season was spent recovering from back surgery in the latter part of 2013, and given that his professional relationship with new coach Amelie Mauresmo was just getting started, this 2015 season stood to be a hugely important time in Murray’s career.
Now, we arrive at a pivot point: In light of all the prizes Murray has claimed in tennis, how much more significant did this match become for his opponent?
Compared to the Big Three, Andy Murray owns a small amount of riches in men’s tennis. Yet, compared to Andy Murray, Tomas Berdych owns a microscopic amount of wealth in tennis terms. This is a big reason why this match stood out as such an opportunity for the 29-year-old whose biological tennis clock is ticking.
Major semifinal appearances have been rare for Berdych. Thursday’s match was just his fifth appearance at this stage of tennis’s foremost pressure cooker. Moreover, this was his fourth major semifinal against someone outside the Big Three, and in his three prior attempts under such circumstances, he had lost — to Robin Soderling at the 2010 French Open, to Murray at the 2012 U.S. Open, and to Stan Wawrinka in last year’s Australian Open.
Weirdly enough, Berdych beat Djokovic (2010 Wimbledon) for his only major semifinal victory, but even that win carries something of a qualifier for him. Djokovic had won only one major at that time and had not encountered the turning-point moment his career needed. To a certain extent, Djokovic’s relationship to Nadal and Federer at that point in time (July 2010) was akin to Murray’s relationship to the Big Three now. When one considers the kind of player Djokovic was in the early summer of 2010, it becomes apparent that Tomas Berdych could not have asked for more in his major semifinal opponents. They weren’t easy foes to solve, no, but they weren’t the kings of the sport over the past decade — that Swiss guy with the smooth strokes and that Mallorcan man with the unparalleled ability to problem-solve and play defense.
At this Australian Open, Berdych finally snapped his long losing streak against Nadal at 17 matches in the quarterfinals. Nadal’s well-being in that match seemed to be less than complete, however — the tweaking of a thigh injury prevented the Spaniard from being at his best.
No, no asterisks should be assigned to Berdych’s win. He held firm when Nadal pushed him at the end of set three, as you read earlier this week at Attacking The Net. Nevertheless, after being strong enough to defeat his persistent mental demons, Berdych once again faced a manageable opponent in the semis. Berdych owned a 6-4 head-to-head record against Murray going into this match. Much as Roger Federer usually beat Andy Murray at the majors, even though the overall head-to-head tilted to Murray for many years, it was still easier to trust Murray’s major-tournament experience against Berdych, despite the deficit in head-to-head results.
If Berdych wanted to really and truly validate himself as a next-level player, he didn’t have to win this tournament, but he DID have to cash his win over Nadal into a bigger ticket… a ticket to his second major final.
Given how inadequate Murray’s tennis (like his health) was in 2014, this was the time for Berdych to strike against the Scotsman, whose final image from 2014 was nearly getting double-bageled by Federer at the ATP World Tour Finals in London. Murray certainly figured to be better in 2015, healed and polished by the passage of time and the ability to properly practice, but on the other hand, Murray wasn’t expected to rise so quickly this year. Berdych did not have to endure what Murray went through from a physical standpoint in 2014. It was time for him to announce his presence at a higher level in the realm of men’s tennis.
Here is a tidy little way of expressing what this match promised to Berdych if he could win it: A victory and a second major final would lift Berdych above his fellow contemporaries in that second tier below the Big Three… and Murray.
Wawrinka. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. David Ferrer. Juan Martin del Potro. Kei Nishikori. Marin Cilic. Those six men, like Berdych, have made one and only one major final. Berdych, by getting back to that stage, would have attained a powerful new dimension of validation for his career. When you can duplicate any notable achievement, you have crossed a threshold of sorts. You have earned the right to say that you are no longer a one-note player or a one-time wonder within that narrow context (whatever that context might be).
Just by reaching a second major final, Berdych’s career would have taken on a new dimension. Yes, bagging his first major remained the focus, but first things first: The Czech had a lot to play for on Thursday. Sunday could wait.
Having appraised both men’s careers, the final part of this story is simply to give an account of how each man handled the moment in this semifinal showdown. The bottom-line reality of winning and losing is part of how tennis players are judged. The other main part concerns how they win and lose, how they reach their ultimate destinations at a signature event in the sport.
If the “how” of a match should influence the way we think of tennis players, not just the final results on the win-loss ledger, this match certainly amplified all that’s great about Murray and all that’s flawed about Berdych. That’s a concise way of summing up this night in Melbourne.
When Berdych steadied himself to win the first-set tiebreaker, claiming a contentious 77-minute set after moments of both excellence and ineptitude, the table was set before him. Murray reflexively shows signs of physical discomfort on the court — it’s kind of a default setting for him — but Berdych had to think that on a relatively comfortable night in Australia, the approach given to him by new coach (and former Murray assistant coach) Daniel Vallverdu would give him the tools and resources to reach the finish line first.
Instead, Berdych capitulated, recalling the weakness between the ears that has sadly defined his almost-but-not-quite life between the painted white lines of the tennis rectangle.
Berdych immediately got broken in his first service game of set two. Just a few blinks later, he had been bageled. Serving at 2-3 in the third set, Berdych tossed in consecutive double faults to turn a 40-love game into a break for his opponent. Murray ran away with the third set, and suddenly, that first-set triumph had lost all value. Berdych deserves a bread crumb of credit for pushing Murray deep into the fourth set despite being outplayed, but the Czech also deserves to be criticized for playing a passive game and stepping away from the fierce ballstriking that is his signature strength. He played his way into a difficult situation, and when he finally lost serve at 5-6 in the fourth, it was all over for him and his bid to make history.
While we consider the failure of Berdych, we must just as readily acknowledge how impressive it is that Murray has so quickly returned to the championship round at a major.
Murray — despite being a shell of his former self as recently as November of 2014 — has become reborn in Australia. During this tournament, he has displayed the tenacity and belief which marked his rise to the top of tennis at Wimbledon in 2013. What was true in his four-set win over Grigor Dimitrov in a highly entertaining fourth-round match was also true in this semifinal conquest of Berdych: Murray smacked his groundstrokes, especially his not-always-there forehand, with conviction. He constantly pumped himself up. He didn’t allow negative scoreboard developments to hijack his confidence.
Feeling better certainly contributes to a better mindset, but on the other hand, Murray has not always been able to make favorable scoreboard situations hold up in huge matches. He won the first set of the 2011 Wimbledon semifinals against Nadal and then made a conspicuously bad error early in the second set which gave Rafa a portal to a four-set comeback victory. Murray took the first set of the 2012 Wimbledon final from Roger Federer but watched the second set slip from his fingers. Instead of owning a two-set lead when the match was moved to an indoor setting due to intermittent rain, Murray found himself on the wrong side of both the scoreboard and momentum, as Federer won in four sets.
Sure, Murray’s physical condition looks so much better now than it did at any point in 2014. Accordingly, the Scot’s body language exists on a higher plane as well. Yet, those qualities — as helpful as they are — don’t guarantee results. Murray had to execute his groundstrokes and pound his first serve enough to make a difference. By successfully outlasting Berdych, Murray has made his eighth major final. It’s not Big Three material, but Tomas Berdych would have killed just to make a second major final.
That last detail, as much as anything else, shows why this victory was as affirming for Murray’s career as it was disappointing for Berdych’s career.
This semifinal might have been bereft of Federer and Nadal, slotted in this bottom half of the men’s draw in Melbourne. The absence of those two titans, however, did not mean this semifinal was minor-league in any way, shape or form. This matchup enabled us to see how well Andy Murray can rebound from a difficult year and affirm the value of his partnership with Mauresmo, silencing anyone who thought a female coach was unfit to guide a top male player. It also enabled us to see that notions of a new Tomas Berdych — while still perhaps valid to a small extent — own a limited foothold and shelf life. Berdych is, undeniably, still who we thought he was.
Murray is, too… but for good reasons, not bad ones.