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Steve Flink: Federer makes earliest Open departure since 2003

9/6/2012 3:00:00 PM

FLUSHING MEADOWS—And so Roger Federer will not be around for the final weekend of the U.S. Open for the first time since 2003. That was the year he fell in the round of 16 against David Nalbandian. Ever since, the Swiss Maestro has been in the thick of the battle at the last major of the season. He captured an astounding five Opens in a row from 2004-2008, lost the 2009 final to Juan Martin Del Potro in five sets after moving within two points of victory, and then was beaten in 2010 and 2011 by Novak Djokovic in the penultimate round after having two match points in both five set contests. Last night, however, he was beaten comprehensively by a better player on the night, essentially blasted off the court by the potent and pure ball striking of the immensely capable Tomas Berdych, ushered out of the tournament in four sets under the lights in Arthur Ashe Stadium.

After securing his seventh Wimbledon singles title in July, reaching the final of the Olympics a few weeks later, and then winning Cincinnati in his only hard court event leading up to the Open, Federer seemed to be ready to put himself in strong contention for a sixth U.S. Open title. He was confident, highly charged, eager to resume his winning ways in New York. But the fact remained that Berdych has been a constant threat to Federer across the last three years, on any surface, at any time. Consider their history in head-to-head combat. Berdych stunned Federer in the summer of 2004 at Athens at the Olympic Games in their first ever meeting, toppling the world No. 1 4-6, 7-5, 7-5 in a major upset. He was only 18 then, and he overcame Federer in a hard fought and exceedingly close match when the Swiss was ruling the world of tennis and on his way to a third major title that season.

And yet, Berdych was beaten by Federer the next eight times they played, bowing four times against his revered rival at Grand Slam events, losing also at the 2008 Olympics. But in their lone showdown of 2009, Berdych nearly upended Federer in the round of 16 at the Australian Open, squandering a two sets to love lead before going out in five sets. The following year, Berdych saved a match point and defeated Federer in a final set tie-break at Miami, and then ousted the Swiss again in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon. Berdych fell against Federer in a final set tie-break at Toronto that summer, but retaliated in the summer of 2011 when he took apart Federer in the quarterfinals of Cincinnati. After Federer crushed Berdych indoors at Paris last fall, these two players had their most recent encounter in Madrid on the blue clay this spring, with Federer prevailing in a sparkling contest 3-6, 7-5, 7-5.

So the evidence was there that Berdych posed a serious threat to Federer last night in Arthur Ashe Stadium. Starting with that near miss at the 2009 Australian Open, Berdych was 3-4 against Federer in their last seven appointments. Of the four losses, he had significant chances to win three of them. So it was clear that a top of the line Berdych would at least be “in with a chance” against Federer last night. He had two more things going for him: Federer had not played a match since his third round win over Fernando Verdasco last Saturday because Mardy Fish had to default with a recurring heart ailment. Three days off is never a good thing for the leading players, who lose their rhythm with too much time between matches. Secondly, Berdych had turned a lackluster year around by reaching the final at Winston Salem, North Carolina on the eve of the Open, losing a rousing battle after reaching match point three times. Until then, his year had been largely lackluster, but the showing in Winston Salem seemed to refuel Berdych at the best possible time. He had lost only one set on his way to the Federer match last night at the Open, and he was serving prodigiously and striking the ball commandingly off the ground.

I had watched good chunks of most of his matches here at the U.S. Open, and Berdych was unmistakably playing about as well as he can. But the question remained: could he knock Roger Federer out of a Grand Slam tournament for the second time in three years? Everyone knew that Berdych possessed the physical skills to test Federer severely, but many were skeptical that he could demonstrate the poise under pressure and the mental toughness to deal with Federer again on such a big occasion. Berdych answered those critics, and then some. Let’s review what happened in the match. In the opening game, Berdych was ahead 30-0 but he double faulted there. Federer briefly found his groove, using the forehand inside-in to go behind Berdych and keep him off balance. He broke for 1-0 and then saved a couple of break points to hold for 2-0.

Federer advanced to 3-1. But Berdych swept three games in a row to lead 4-3 and get back on serve. They proceeded to a tie-break that would be critical in determining the outcome of the clash. In that sequence, Federer made some backbreaking mistakes at the most inopportune of moments. With Berdych serving the first point, the Swiss came forward and had a backhand volley he ought to have made. But he punched that shot into the net. Berdych jumped all over a return of serve to rush Federer into a forehand error, and it was 2-0 for the No. 6 seed. Federer won the next point on his own serve, but, improbably, he never won another. After Berdych served his way into a 3-1 lead, he then benefited enormously from a flagrant forehand miss-hit from Federer, taking a 4-1 lead on that miscue from the world No. 1.

Berdych sensed he had it under control now, and indeed he did. A crackling return of serve winner took Berdych to 5-1, and he wrapped it up swiftly from there, seven points to one. Berdych had not made a single unforced error in the tie-break, and Federer had unraveled. The implications of Berdych prevailing were immense. The only time he has ever rallied from a set down in any match against Federer was in their inaugural meeting at the 2004 Olympics. He needed the first set much more than Federer did. I believe both players knew that in their guts, which is why Berdych was so buoyant when he won it and Federer was quietly disconsolate when it got away from him

In the opening game of the second set, Berdych pounced. Federer missed five out of six first serves. At 30-30, he missed an inside-out forehand, and then he was off the mark with a routine forehand down the line at break point down. Berdych had the immediate break for 1-0. He held at 30 for 2-0 with controlled aggression, serving a timely ace at 130 down the T at 30-30. Serving at 1-3, Federer fell behind 0-40, but at that juncture he made a tough and disciplined stand. At 0-40, he served an ace, followed by a service winner, followed by a 95 MPH kick first serve that set up a forehand winner to the open court for deuce. Federer then was fortunate as his backhand drop volley clipped the net cord but went over for a winner. Another unstoppable serve made it five straight points for Federer and gave him a crucial hold for 2-3, but a composed Berdych responded with a love hold for 4-2 as the big man connected with four consecutive first serves, including three service winners.

Federer was in a terrible bind, and he recognized that. Serving into the wind at 2-4, an overwrought Federer played an abysmal game. He double faulted for 0-15, double faulted again to make it 30-30, and made a forehand unforced error to put himself break down. This time, there was no rescue mission. Berdych ran around his backhand and sent a brilliantly executed forehand inside-in for a dazzling outright winner into the corner. He had the insurance break, which would be important. Serving for the set at 5-2, Berdych was broken at love as Federer returned adeptly the entire game and Berdych tightened up. Federer held at 15, putting in four of five first serves. He had won eight out of nine points to close the gap to 5-4. But, serving for the set a second time, Berdych held at love. Federer overanxiously made consecutive unforced errors off the forehand to give Berdych the cushion of a 30-0 lead, and Berdych followed that up with a pair of aces. Set to Berdych, 6-4.

The outset of the third set strongly resembled the second. Federer’s forehand insecurity remained as he made two more unprovoked mistakes off that side. Berdych broke him at 15, held at love for 2-0, and soon advanced to 3-1 with a 132 MPH ace down the T as he held at 15. He was right where he wanted to be, ahead two sets to love, up a break in the third, overwhelming and overpowering Federer from the back of the court, serving with remarkable potency and accuracy. But the crowd was urging Federer on, and there was plenty of fight and spunk left in the 17 time Grand Slam tournament champion. He held at 15 for 2-3, then broke Berdych for 3-3. At 30-40 down in that sixth game, Berdych sent a kick serve wildly long for a discouraging double fault.

Federer was clearly revitalized. He held at love for 4-3. With Berdych serving at in the eighth game at 15-30, he made a tactical error by thumping a forehand approach crosscourt. Federer was ready, using the pace Berdych gave him, ripping a forehand passing shot cleanly crosscourt for a winner. Berdych apprehensively struck an inside out forehand wide at 15-40. He was broken tamely at 15. Serving for the set at 5-3, Federer produced a pair of excellent forehand drop shots, one for a winner, the other forcing Berdych to miss a backhand. Federer had captured 20 of 26 points as he garnered five games in a row to salvage the set. The crowd—and perhaps Federer—sensed more than a brief revival. Federer has made eight comebacks across his career from two sets to love down, including two this year. He had rallied gamely once before against Berdych from the same position.

But it was not to be. Berdych weathered the storm ably and admirably. He held at 15 for 1-0 in the fourth, playing that game thoughtfully and aggressively. Federer was down 0-30 in the second game, but he served his way characteristically out of that corner with variety and purpose. At 30-30, he released an ace. He quickly took the next point. It was 1-1. But Berdych was unrelenting and persuasive in every facet of his game. He held at 15 again for 2-1, serving an ace for 30-15, going into the body and to the forehand twice to win other points. Federer held at love for 2-2. The fans—decidedly in the Swiss player’s corner—were encouraged. The fifth game was critical. Berdych drifted to 0-30, but he calmly collected four points in a row, confounding Federer with the direction of his serve. The Swiss compounded his problems with some more errant forehands off the return and during the rallies. Berdych held on tenaciously for 3-2.

That stand from Berdych seemed to take away a measure of Federer’s confidence. Federer was down 15-30 at 2-3, but he came through with a forehand down the line winner behind Berdych and then an ace. At 40-30, Berdych missed with a running forehand crosscourt. Federer had travelled back to 3-3. Berdych, however, was not swayed. He held at 30 for 4-3 with an ace down the T. The burden was back on Federer to hold. He drifted to 15-30 with yet another unforced error off the forehand, driving that shot well over the baseline. Then Federer won a challenge on a forehand that had been called out. He was then absolutely fortunate in making it back to 30-30. He totally miss-hit a forehand approach crosscourt, and then lunged for a forehand drop volley off the frame that turned into a winner.

Federer served at 3-4, 30-30 after that reprieve, but his forehand approach clipped the net cord and went long. Down break point, Federer got his first serve in, but Berdych drove the return deep. He then lined up another forehand and cracked it impeccably with utter assurance crosscourt. Federer never had a chance to track it down. Berdych had connected for a crucial winner, moving to 5-3. Now he was serving for the match. He played that ninth game immaculately, holding at love, getting all four first serves in. On the first point, he came forward to lure Federer into a backhand passing shot error. Berdych then released a 126 MPH service winner to Federer’s forehand, and then came up with a 124 MPH ace down the T for 40-0. One more service winner gave Berdych the hold at love, and took him confidently and deservedly over the finish line. Berdych triumphed 7-6 (1), 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.

Some of the statistics from the Berdych-Federer collision are revealing. No less than 40% of Berdych’s serves were unreturned, with Federer at only 29% in that category. Berdych won 80% of his first serve points while Federer took only 71% of his first serve points. On second serves, Berdych was at 51% with Federer at only 45%.  Federer made 40 unforced errors—24 off the forehand. Berdych had only 21 total unforced mistakes.

The win for Berdych means the U.S. Open will have a different look and feel over the final weekend. Federer had met Novak Djokovic five straight years in Ashe Stadium, and many believed they would square off again this time in the final. It won’t happen. Federer had taken on Andy Murray in two enormously important matches recently, stopping the British competitor in a four set Wimbledon final, losing in a straight set final at the Olympics. The prevailing view was that Federer and Murray would clash again here in the semifinals, but now that will not happen either. Berdych will take a 4-2 career lead into his duel with Murray on Saturday, and that will be an intriguing battle of skills and wills. Murray was down a set and 5-1 before crushing Marin Cilic in a four set quarterfinal.

So we will move on without Roger Federer in the picture. Federer was clearly distressed by his loss to Berdych. Asked at the end of his press conference if finishing this year as the No. 1 player in the world would be “the ultimate achievement” for him, Federer replied, “I’ve got to go back to the drawing board from here and see what’s really the priority, see if that No. 1 ranking is the priority for the end of the year. I don’t know right now. I mean, the goal has been achieved [in getting back to No. 1] but now this is disappointing for me. We’ll see where I go from now and if I go to Davis Cup or not, about to see what’s to come for the remainder of the season… This is obviously a setback. But again, the season is not over. I hope to finish strong at the end, particularly in the indoor season.”

After his post-Open performance last year, it would be unwise to sell him short now. After his devastating defeat against Djokovic in the 2011 semifinals, he went on a tear, winning three straight indoor events at the end of the year, setting the stage for a spectacular comeback in 2012. Federer detests losing, and remains highly motivated. Yet this latest loss will linger in some ways for Federer because he seemed so optimistic that he could win the U.S. Open this time around. His loss could be Murray’s gain, but that remains to be seen.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.