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Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Awaiting the Oz-some Rafa-Fed clash

By Greg Garber

There is no fighting in tennis, no unnecessary roughness. This genteel sport of country clubs demands a higher standard.

Which is why it was startling to see Nicolas Almagro seemingly try to slam a forehand approach shot through Tomas Berdych's face during their fourth-round match Sunday. The ball hit Berdych in the arm and after the match he refused to shake Almagro's hand, drawing boos and jeers from the Australian Open crowd.

Berdych said afterward that Almagro had enough room on the court to avoid the strike. Many people in and around tennis, however, believe Berdych's postmatch shot was a far more heinous offense than Almagro's.

"These Aussie Rules guys are beating the hell out of each other, boxers are trying to put each other on the ground," said John McEnroe, that authority on tennis etiquette, "and here we are all of a sudden [in a competitive tennis match] and he's not taking too kindly to it.

"We've got to toughen up as tennis players."

This was the fun, frothy storyline that preceded Berdych's quarterfinal match with Rafael Nadal, another Spaniard who has posed him problems. Six years ago, Berdych motioned to a Madrid crowd to be quiet after he beat Nadal -- who was not pleased, and told him so. Is it a coincidence that Berdych hadn't beaten Rafa since, going 0-for-9 in the process?

We are happy to report that no punches were thrown Tuesday night at Rod Laver Arena. In fact, when one of Berdych's shots in the first set was called out, Nadal -- without animosity or the aid of replay -- corrected the call, giving the point to Berdych.

No, what happened was some terrific, muscular, pure tennis. Nadal was, oddly, far short of his best tennis until the end, while Berdych played about as well as he can play. And yet, it was the will of Nadal -- and his physical superiority as the match progressed -- that prevailed. Make that 10-0.

Nadal won 6-7 (5), 7-6 (6), 6-4, 6-3 in a match that stretched 4 hours, 16 minutes.

Thus, Rafa will meet Roger Federer for the 27th time -- but only for the second in a Grand Slam semifinal -- on Thursday night in Australia (3:30 a.m. ET, ESPN2 and ESPN3). Their last meeting here was the spectacular 2009 final, won by Nadal in five sets, that left Federer in tears.

"Unforgettable," Nadal called that encounter in his on-court interview. "The match that before [it was played], I never expect I have chances to win. That match, that final is one of my great memories."

Nadal has won seven Grand Slam matches against Federer, while losing only two. Since losing the 2007 Wimbledon final to Federer, Rafa has won the last four meetings. Still, based on recent form, the 30-year-old Federer -- who dispatched Juan Martin del Potro in straight sets -- would seem to have more than just a fighting chance.

There was no handshake controversy this time with Tomas Berdych.

On the other side of the draw, the other members of the big four, No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic and No. 4 Andy Murray, also have chances to advance to the semifinals Wednesday, which would replicate the recent U.S. Open's fabulous final four.

Coming into the match, the No. 7 seed from the Czech Republic had lost an astounding 21 of 22 sets to Nadal. And when Nadal saved four set points -- one in spectacular fashion, at 15-40, with a 30-stroke rally that featured some unnatural defense and was the point of the tournament so far -- to force a first-set tiebreaker, it looked like the karma would continue. But Berdych, aided by a bad call, found himself in the extra session.

He trailed 5-3 but drew even when Nadal missed a backhand service return and Berdych crushed a backhand service winner. Serving at 5-all, Nadal seemed mesmerized as a Berdych offering drifted close to the baseline. The ball was called good. Nadal waited too long to challenge, denied by chair umpire Carlos Bernardes, leading to an overheated conversation in Spanish. Replays, of course, showed that Berdych's shot was out. Berdych had won both points on Nadal's serve and served out the tiebreaker with an ace.

Seventy-five minutes into the match, Berdych appeared to be in a good position to spring an upset. Leading 6-5 in the second-set tiebreaker, his chances looked even better. But Nadal came up with a good forehand to force a wide volley, then watched Berdych net a backhand and spray a forehand long to level the match 2 hours, 26 minutes in.

Technically, coaching during matches is prohibited by the ATP, but messages are passed between player and coach all the time. With Nadal reverting to his clay roots, retreating Rafa was, let's say, encouraged by coach Toni Nadal to move closer to the baseline. Nadal's position on the baseline always has been the window to his psyche; when he stepped forward, it changed the complexion of the match. Nadal won the third set with a thundering overhead (and obligatory fist pump) and Berdych, struggling with what looked to be a hip injury, seemed done. He fought hard in the final set, though, which should restore some luster to his tarnished reputation.

"We both had chances," Nadal said. "Second set was probably the key for me. I started returning a little bit inside the court. After I came back inside, I found solutions."

Berdych is a wonderful player. But, at the age of 26, he was born into what might be the most competitive era ever in men's tennis. Someone, usually named Federer or Nadal, has prevented him from winning a major. At Wimbledon in 2010, Berdych beat Federer in the quarterfinals, then Djokovic in the semifinals -- only to lose to Nadal in his first (and only) Grand Slam singles final.

"I mean, it was really good match," Berdych said. "But actually it was only good, which means that is not enough with Rafa."

After beating Feliciano Lopez to reach the quarters, Nadal was asked what it would mean to him to win a quarterfinal match in Melbourne after getting dropped there the past two years.

"Hopefully, not happen this time," he said, forcing a smile.

Two years ago, he retired from his match with Murray with a knee injury. Last year, attempting to win his fourth consecutive major, Nadal pulled his left hamstring in the third game and eventually lost in straight sets to David Ferrer. That ended a streak of 25 consecutive Grand Slam match wins.

Nadal's new streak stands at five. He's won 15 of 16 sets this fortnight and will be fired up for his match with Federer. He was asked by Jim Courier after the match how his body was feeling.

"Tired," said Nadal, laughing. "Hopefully, fine. I [played] very well in the third and fourth sets of this intense battle. Very happy how I finished my match with high intensity."

He'll need to find some more of it on Thursday.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for