Serb Reigns Supreme: Djokovic Reaches Semifinals, Retains #1 By Halting Berdych

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Djokovic timed his swings exquisitely for most of a four-set quarterfinal win.

Never having lost to quarterfinal opponent Tomas Berdych on a hard court, world #1 Novak Djokovic must have brought plenty of confidence into their encounter.  Questions surrounded the defending champion’s condition following his narrow escape from Stanislas Wawrinka in the previous round.  But he laid those questions to rest emphatically with a largely crisp four-set victory over a top-eight rival, advancing 6-1 4-6 6-1 6-4.

Evincing no traces of fatigue from his five-hour marathon, Djokovic wasted little time in setting to work upon his more heralded opponent.  Although Berdych held serve to start the match, the Serb reeled off six straight games from there with a blizzard of imaginative shot-making.  Nearly every area of the defending champion’s game sparkled, even the drop shots with which he often struggles and a side-spinning backhand slice that he rarely uses.  Especially notable, though, was his ability to return Berdych’s imposing first serve with pinpoint accuracy, pockmarking the baseline repeatedly.  The Czech depends on taking control of rallies from the outset, and Djokovic robbed him of that opportunity by catching him on his back foot and starting the point in neutral tone.  From there, his superior movement wore down Berdych as he reversed direction on his groundstrokes almost at will, revealing the advantage of his greater versatility.

Ending the first set with a double fault, the challenger knew that his fortunes could not decline much further in the second.  Meanwhile, Djokovic may have grown a bit complacent after starting his match so much more impressively than he had a round before.  Whatever the cause, Berdych collected a service break to start the second set, striking his forehand with greater depth and confidence.  Djokovic’s movement, while still elastic at times, looked a shade less impenetrable as the Czech consolidated his break into an early lead.  In these first few games, shots that had clipped the outsides of lines and corners started falling slightly outside them from the Serb.  At 0-2, 15-30, Berdych threatened to claim an insurance break, but Djokovic regrouped enough to hold.

In the Serb’s following service game, his opponent again hovered on the verge of extending his margin.  Saving two break points, Djokovic prevented Berdych from dashing away with the set, which soon became a question of whether the opening break would prove sufficient for the underdog to draw level.  The top seed repeatedly pressured the Czech in service games, drawing to 30-30 twice, but he could not quite manufacture a break point.  Attacking the net with greater commitment than he had shown early in the match, the broad-shouldered Berdych tried to neutralize Djokovic’s talent for the sprawling defensive get.

Two scintillating backhand returns from the former, one a near-winner and one a clean winner, moved him within a point of leveling the match.  Berdych spurned the set point with a loose backhand, and the set moved to his racket for the most important service game of his tournament.  As one might expect, it unfolded in eventful fashion.  Two groundstroke errors thrust him into trouble from the outset, and a stunning sequence of Djokovic scrambles pinned him at double break point.  But Berdych saved those two break points with an ace and an inside-in forehand winner, and then he saved a third with an equally dazzling backhand down the line.  Once Djokovic had let a fourth break point slip away with an errant forehand, his frustration contributed to his opponent’s success in compiling the next two points for the second set.

In a development that few would have anticipated after the first set, the honors stood even between the combatants as the third set began.  A game-ending ace from Djokovic restored some of the defending champion’s flagging spirits.  Swiftly moved the Serb to double break point once more, capturing the second with a wild cross-court forehand from the Czech.  While Djokovic held easily to consolidate the break, Berdych showed that his determination remained undimmed by tracking down a drop shot on an otherwise meaningless point.  That determination reaped scant rewards, though, when Djokovic broke him again for the loss of a single point, rifling a backhand winner down the line.  Although the Serb grew a bit careless when serving for the set, falling behind 15-30, he outfoxed the lumbering Berdych in a lengthy exchange at the net that set up his comfortable conversion of the last few points that he needed.

Now trailing two sets to one, the Czech needed to start the fourth set in a more positive manner to convince himself that his upset bid remained genuine.  He accomplished that goal with an opening hold behind fierce forehands that he redirected down both lines.  The reprieve did not last long, for Djokovic created two break points in his next service game with tenacious court coverage.  Saving the first with a combination of wide serve and cross-court backhand, Berdych yielded the second when his opponent’s defense once again forced him to aim for too much from his forehand.

The set then settled into a relatively routine pattern of holds, neither man able to significantly dent the other’s serve.  To his credit, Berdych continued to keep the pressure on the Serb by protecting his own games routinely.  With Djokovic serving for the match, however, the plot thickened.  Three match points came and went, one on a routine miss of a stroke that would have ended the match, although Berdych never earned a break point.  On the fourth match point, Djokovic did not let his opponent put the ball into play, instead slamming an ace down the center service line.

In barely two and a half hours, half the length of his previous victory, the Serb had returned to his dominant form with a performance largely absent of flaws outside his lull early in the second set.  Extending his hard-court mastery of Berdych, Djokovic also ensured that he will remain #1 after the Australian Open.  Two victories from the coveted three-peat, he will face Ferrer in another match that he will enter heavily favored.

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