It is one of the most famous quotes in tennis history.
After beating Jimmy Connors in 1980, Vitas Gerulaitis — who had lost his previous 16 matches to Jimbo — said, “Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row!”
Never mind the fact that Bjorn Borg had won 20 matches against Gerulaitis without a defeat — the quote is rightly considered a classic, and it was typical of Gerulaitis to say something so humorous and charming. (The tennis world acutely misses the charismatic Brooklyn-born player — he would have been a mainstay in a broadcast booth had he not died in his sleep of carbon monoxide poisoning in 1994 at the age of 40.)
As Tomas Berdych prepared to face Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open on Tuesday in Melbourne, everyone in the global tennis community called the Gerulaitis quote to mind… but very few expected to use a modified version of it.
No, there weren’t many people who expected to update a legendary tennis quote. This was representative of the punditocracy’s mindset (very much including the view of this writer):
No one beats Berdych 18 times (or 20 times) in a row…a tweet you won't be seeing in about 11 hours time…
— jimmy soixante neuf (@hotdog6969) January 26, 2015
SURE, Tomas Berdych entered this match as the better in-form player compared to Nadal.
YES, Berdych was hitting a bigger, cleaner ball. He had progressed more smoothly through the draw. Nadal, coming off a case of appendicitis and the removal of his appendix last fall, had not yet attained the level of performance we’re accustomed to seeing from him. Nadal was not yet his imposing self, with the smothering presence and the hefty groundstrokes that — when dialed in — make him nearly impossible to beat.
Yet, Nadal was still the near-consensus choice for this match, though a few people from the excellent tennis site, The Tennis Island, called this upset for Berdych:
— René (@Renestance) January 27, 2015
What does it say about a player when he’s clearly displaying better form and is closer to being 100-percent healthy than his opponent… and is still the underdog, the player not picked to win by a majority of pundits?
What is fascinating — and more than a little ironic — about the “No one beats Vitus Gerulaitis 17 times in a row!” quote is that Gerulaitis was in many ways a player who inhabited a situation similar to the one Berdych has had to deal with throughout his career.
Gerulaitis did win one major — the (December) 1977 Australian Open — but for the most part, he was a player who rarely made major finals (three, all told) and lived in the shadows of his superior contemporaries: Borg, Connors, John McEnroe, and Ivan Lendl. For the few years in which he enjoyed a prime period and was a contender at the majors, Gerulaitis was always stopped by a superior player. When he won the (December) 1977 Australian Open — there were two Australian Opens played that year, one in January before a temporary switch to December — Gerulaitis beat only one seeded player, and none of the other top pros in the sport made the journey Down Under to contest that championship. (This is why it bears repeating that the Australian Open was a major in name only for much of its history, until it gained a 128-player draw in 1988 after moving to its current facilities in Melbourne Park as a re-created hardcourt event.)
Basically, Gerulaitis was the Berdych of his day. The central unifying comparison — that he was a very strong player but a cut below the very best in his sport — is fundamentally accurate, even though one could draw some differences between the two men on the margins.
Berdych, therefore, faced a moment of truth against Nadal: Enjoying better health and form, the Czech encountered his best chance to beat Nadal for the first time since 2006. If ever Berdych was going to snap that 17-match losing streak and also beat Nadal at a major for the first time in four tries, this was it.
Berdych had shown time and again that he could play and beat Roger Federer at majors, taking down the Swiss in the 2010 Wimbledon quarterfinals and the 2012 U.S. Open quarterfinals. Berdych was able to beat Novak Djokovic in the 2010 Wimbledon semifinals, just before Djokovic’s prime period began with his come-to-Jesus moment at the 2010 U.S. Open. Nadal, though, had proved to be elusive at the majors. If many people in the global tennis community were going to view Tomas Berdych differently — for all the right reasons — the 29-year-old Czech had to take advantage of a favorable situation against Nadal.
To the amazement of many, he did just that.
What is essential to realize about Berdych’s 6-2, 6-0, 7-6 (5) victory over Rafa is that it did not come without a struggle at the end… which is precisely why this triumph can be appreciated instead of being dismissed as a one-off occurrence or some sort of fluke.
Yes, it’s true that Nadal just wasn’t moving well or hitting with pop through the first two sets. Nadal wasn’t wincing in pain or grimacing, but his energy level did not rise to the heights we’re accustomed to seeing from him. Berdych convincingly won the first set without having to go for too much on his groundstrokes. When the Czech loosened up in the second set and hit slightly bigger, he became one of a select few players to bagel Nadal in a set at a major. It appeared that Berdych was going to “routine” Nadal with a scoreline in the vicinity of 2, 0 and 3, the kind of outcome reserved for a second-round match against a tomato can.
Rafa’s lack of resistance — not a failure of will on his part, but certainly a bad day at the office (much like Simona Halep’s baffling no-show in the women’s quarters against Ekaterina Makarova earlier in the day on the same Rod Laver Arena court) — made it easy for many viewers to say that Berdych wasn’t doing anything special. Yet, Berdych — a player with a deficient mental game, by far his greatest weakness — had demonstrated the clarity and poise which had eluded him for so long in these kinds of stages, primarily against Nadal but also against the other elites in men’s tennis.
Keep this point in mind about Berdych: He had enjoyed advantageous situations in other major quarterfinals, as recently as last year in fact. He played Ernests Gulbis at the French Open and Marin Cilic in the U.S. Open. Berdych was a clear favorite entering each of those matches… and failed to win a single set. No Federer, no Djokovic, no Nadal, no difference — Berdych became a smaller player in a late-stage major-tournament match. It was a pattern for a man who entered this tournament in Melbourne with only four major semifinal appearances to his credit, despite outrageously good skills and some of the “easiest power” on the ATP Tour. The brain was always the problem, but in the first two sets against Nadal, that brain got out of the way and allowed a talented body to perform the way it always could — but rarely did — under pressure.
In the third set, however, the scoreline tightened. While this might seem to paint Berdych in a negative light on the surface, the contentious nature of the set actually magnifies what Berdych achieved on Tuesday, allowing this match to be seen as a mighty feat and not just some easy-to-write-off aberration.
Nadal might never have attained the court-penetrating depth on his shots that he would have liked, but what changed in the third set was that the Mallorcan legend found a new level of energy. Rafa sprinted more across the court, retrieving more shots and doing a demonstrably better job of turning defense into offense, a signature of his playing style. Just when it seemed he was faltering on serve at 3-4 in the set — headed for a possible 2, 0 and 3 loss in the “routine” category — Nadal upped his game and held for 4-4. He finally asked Berdych some tough questions. He finally forced Berdych to deal with match and scoreboard pressure.
This calls to mind Berdych’s most haunting Australian Open memory at a tournament where more than one Swiss man has tormented him.
Berdych’s second most painful loss in Melbourne over the years came last year to Stan Wawrinka in the semifinals. His most painful loss at the Australian Open came in the fourth round of the 2009 tournament, when he blew a two-set lead against Federer and lost in five. Berdych was in control of that match until he badly botched a shot at net to cede a break to the Swiss in the third set. That was the turning point Federer needed to create a different tone in the match. Federer protected his break lead, tucked away the third set, and then steadily outplayed Berdych the rest of the way.
With this memory in mind, tennis fans knew that the more Nadal made Berdych work for the third set, the more Berdych would have to defeat his demons and concentrate on every point in order to finish the job. What had seemed like a foregone conclusion — that Berdych would cruise to the finish line — became an open question. History showed as much.
As the third set continued and became more dramatic with every turn, Nadal continued to fend off Berdych in defining situations, essentially telling his opponent, “If you’re going to beat me, I’m not going to do it for you. YOU have to prove that you’re worthy of the occasion!”
Nadal calmly saved two match points when serving at 5-6 in the third. Having saved those two match points, Nadal then held after Berdych snatched at and netted a routine forehand at deuce in that 12th game of the set. In the tiebreaker which ensued, Berdych arrived at the first changeover with a 5-1 lead, and for a brief bit of time, it appeared that the Czech might still win without suffocating drama in Rod Laver Arena. However, Nadal won the next three points, two on Berdych’s serve, to bring the tiebreaker back on serve at 4-5. Berdych had to win one of the next two points on Nadal’s serve to avoid having to fight off a set point at (what would have been) 5-6. So much of Berdych’s career and what was left of his reputation depended on his ability to make winning plays in these next few points.
With Nadal serving at 4-5, Berdych pounded an inside-out forehand crosscourt to earn two more match points. After Nadal saved one — his third of the afternoon — Berdych arrived at the crucible known as 6-5 in a tiebreaker, serve in hand. That situation — one point for a match win in a tiebreaker, with the serve — is simultaneously a huge opportunity and a massive burden. Win the point, you’ve reached the finish line. Lose the point, and you have to deal with a changeover while your opponent breathes confidence, knowing that if you lose the subsequent 6-6 point on your serve, your opponent will then get to serve for the set at 7-6.
Tiebreakers are crapshoots, and no one will win the biggest tiebreaker points all the time, but if players want to be remembered differently — as being special in some way, as being worthy of an elevated place in tennis — they will win their share of 6-5 tiebreaker points with the serve, especially in second-week matches at majors. This was precisely the kind of point Berdych so rarely won in his career. It was the point Nadal — by competing admirably — forced Berdych to win if he was going to close out the 14-time major champion.
With a strong second serve — a hard, flat bullet just inside the service line — Berdych got Nadal to net the return. The deed was done, and the spirit of Vitas Gerulaitis could finally be invoked.
No one beats Tomas Berdych 18 times in a row!
Of greater significance is that no one can ever again say that Berdych always folds the tent when Rafa comes calling at a major tournament.
For once, Tomas Berdych grew a pair in a moment of great consequence. Should he beat Andy Murray in a very intriguing Thursday-night semifinal — thereby backing up one great conquest with another — we will leave the 2015 Australian Open knowing that Tomas Berdych displayed more of a capacity for growth than many of us thought possible. Paradoxically, it’s only because Rafael Nadal fought so well in the third set that we can give Berdych’s victory the lavish praise it rightly deserves.
When you refute history, your own personal demons, and hundreds of tennis pundits all in one fell swoop, your achievement should not be shortchanged. We will see just how much mileage Tomas Berdych can gain from walking over the hot coals of pressure against Rafael Nadal… and showing enough toughness to live through the experience.