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Steve Flink: Berdych and Halep jumpstart 2014 campaigns

2/17/2014 8:00:00 PM

The ultimate test for any authentic tennis champion is winning a major. No task is more rigorous than enduring a fortnight at a Grand Slam event, surpassing 127 other players, holding the trophy in the end.

And yet, that territory is reserved for only the elite, and most players will never taste the champagne in Melbourne, Paris, London or New York. The next most important barometer of a player’s stature is winning tournaments of any kind on the ATP and WTA tours. That, of course, is a significant feat for even the best players in the world. The ever reliable yet sometimes maddening Tomas Berdych captured his first ATP World Tour singles title since October of 2012 in Stockholm when he took the top honor at the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament in Rotterdam. In 2013, Berdych was the only man among the top ten in world who did not win a tournament. That was inexplicable and inexcusable for a competitor of his caliber. Meanwhile, the surging Romanian Simona Halep secured her first singles crown of 2014 at the Qatar Total Open in Doha, following up on a magnificent season in 2013 when she won no fewer than six singles championships on the WTA Tour.

For Halep, the habit of winning tournaments was clearly formed in 2013; prior to that season, she had never ruled at a tournament in her career. Her success in Doha was logical and largely to be expected. But Berdych is another story altogether. Here is a man who has concluded the last four seasons at either No. 6 or No. 7 in the world. But in many ways he has never done his game or himself justice. The 28-year-old had won only eight singles events across his distinguished career, and had been beaten in eleven finals. But perhaps his triumph in Rotterdam will ignite Berdych and make him strive for even higher standards than he has already set.

In the quarterfinals last week, he rallied from a set down against the formidable Jerzy Janowicz, returning serve remarkably well in a 6-7 (9), 6-2, 6-4 victory. Then he upended the gifted yet mercurial Ernest Gulbis 6-3, 6-2 in the penultimate round. In the final, Berdych took on Marin Cilic, who was performing dynamically. The 25-year-old Croatian had won the tournament a week earlier in Zagreb, and had remained near the top of his game all week in Rotterdam, most impressively cutting down Andy Murray in a straight set quarterfinal. He had won nine matches in a row by the time he took the court to face Berdych.

Had Cilic managed to exploit his opportunities early in the contest with Berdych, he might have met a different fate. So many matches between leading players are settled late in sets, but the outcome of this encounter was determined largely at the outset. Berdych was reading Cilic’s serve well, and he reached 30-40 with the 6’6” Croatian serving in the opening game. Cilic erased that break point with a well located body serve setting up a penetrating crosscourt forehand that Berdych could not answer. Cilic held on and then went to work diligently in the second game.

Berdych was down 15-40 before serving an ace out wide. At 30-40, the two warriors went forehand to forehand in a fierce exchange, but Berdych got the better of it. That game went to deuce four times. Cilic had a third break point but was forced into a forehand mistake by a persistent Berdych, who held on admirably for 1-1, surviving a crucial game that lasted over ten minutes. Had Berdych gone down a break right out of the gates, he might have been thrown into disarray. But he was tough, disciplined and bold when it mattered.

Relaxed after holding on, Berdych broke Cilic in the following game. Cilic served an ace down the T for 30-15 but then self-destructed, pulling a backhand crosscourt approach wide, missing a standard forehand volley into the net with the court wide open, and then netting a two-hander down the line. Berdych was off and running, ahead 2-1, sensing he could seize control. Despite missing four of five first serves, he held at 15 for 3-1. After an easy hold from Cilic, Berdych missed three of five first serves yet still lost only one point on his serve en route to 4-2.

The die had been cast. Berdych closed out that set 6-4, holding at love for 5-3 with an ace, serving out the set by holding at 30 in the tenth game. Perhaps playing two long weeks back to back had caught up with a depleted Cilic. He was broken in the opening game of the second set at 15 as Berdych outhit him in a spectacular 20 stroke rally, concluding that exchange with a patented inside-in forehand winner for 15-40. Cilic drove a backhand down the line long on the following point. Berdych was rolling, serving three aces and holding at love for 2-0. Berdych was impenetrable now. He was unyielding on serve, and Cilic had no clue how to disrupt his opponent’s big hitting rhythm. Serving at 2-4 in that second set, Cilic double faulted to trail 0-30 and served another double fault at break point down. Berdych held at love to close out a routine 6-4, 6-2 triumph.

Berdych won more than 80% of his first serve points and 70% of his second serve points. No one is going to lose with commanding numbers like that. He was never broken. Cilic, meanwhile, was at 41% on second serve points won. That was insufficient to get the job done. For only the ninth time in twenty career ATP World Tour finals, Berdych was victorious. The view here is that he is a better player than that. He may be robotic at times, devoid of much imagination, seldom moving far from the pre-match playbook he has devised. But his mechanical efficiency is astounding; taken as a package, his forehand and backhand are perhaps the most lethal two way combination in tennis. Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are much more consistent and resourceful from the baseline, but Berdych’s offense from the backcourt is a sight to behold. Although he has a small margin for error off both sides, not much can go wrong with his extraordinary ground game these days.

Halep took on the crafty German Angelique Kerber in the final at Doha, and put on a first rate performance. Kerber is a versatile left-hander with a remarkable forehand, the ingenuity to venture forward whenever she has the opening to approach the net, and the skill to release a fine array of shots. Kerber finished 2012 at No. 5 in the world and still had a very good 2013 despite slipping to a still respectable No. 9. She is a pleasure to watch because she finds different ways to win and shapes strategy so cleverly and unpredictably, and I believed that her appointment with Halep might well go three sets.

Halep had other notions entirely. Halep is 5”6”, quick and resourceful, capable of stepping up the pace at any time. And yet, she is an excellent defender as well. Her serve—particularly the second serve—is not yet a primary strength and she will need to bolster that part of her game substantially to reach the next level. This spunky individual was No. 10 in the world heading into Doha, and has now moved up to No. 9. The most markedly improved player in the women’s game, there is no reason why she should not keep progressing rapidly. Halep is a cagey match player. She reads the map of a match as well as anyone in her trade. At 22, her best tennis is well ahead of her and of us.

From the beginning, Kerber seemed confused and uptight about playing Halep, who has no holes in her game at the moment. Kerber commenced the match with a backhand unforced error before Halep made a forehand inside out winner. Halep coaxed an error from Kerber off the backhand, and then broke the German at love when Kerber double faulted wildly, sending her second serve way wide and considerably long. Halep held at 15 for 2-0, unleashing two backhand down the line winners in that game along with a forehand inside out winner. The Romanian was carrying herself with decidedly more composure than her uneasy adversary.

Although Kerber held easily in the third game, Halep remained resolute. She held at love for 3-1 with a sparkling forehand drive volley winner. Kerber bolted to 40-15 in the fifth game, but Halep swept three straight points. Although Kerber erased a break point against her with a penetrating forehand down the line causing an error, Halep was unswerving. She drove a forehand down the line almost effortlessly on the run for a clean winner, getting around the outside of the ball beautifully and threading the needle. At break point, Halep changed pace adroitly of the forehand, breaking up Kerber’s rhythm in the rally. Halep sent a stinging forehand crosscourt that totally compromised Kerber, who netted a backhand. Halep had advanced to 4-1, moving ahead by two service breaks.

The Romanian held at 15 for 5-1. Kerber had to work inordinately hard to hold in the seventh game, which went to two deuces. On the penultimate point of that game, she connected with a forehand inside out winner, and the German held on by digging out an arduous and almost desperate low forehand drop volley winner. Kerber tenuously held for 2-5, but not without an enormous effort from the left-hander. Serving for the first set, Halep was down 30-40. She swung her first serve out wide to set up a solid backhand down the line, forcing Kerber into a netted backhand on the run. Halep moved to set point but Kerber saved it with a delayed backhand down the line approach, coaxing Halep into an error.

The German then garnered a second break point, only to harm herself needlessly. Moving close to the net for what should have been a routine winner, Kerber touched the net with her left foot, thus automatically losing the point. Kerber put that disconcerting moment behind her, moving again to break point by drawing Halep in with a forehand drop volley. Easily anticipating Halep’s response, Kerber punched a crisp backhand volley crosscourt for a winner. Once more, Halep was imperturbable. She sent a second serve accurately down the T to set up a forehand winner. At deuce, Halep’s crosscourt backhand had too much pace for Kerber to handle, and Halep took the next point to seal the set, provoking another backhand error from Kerber. Set to Halep, 6-2.

Kerber worked exceedingly hard to stay in the set, but had little to show for it. The German held easily to open the second set and had a break point for 2-0. But Kerber’s return was too short, and Halep stepped in and directed her two-hander down the line for a winner. Halep held for 1-1. After both players held comfortably to make it 2-2, Halep made her move in the fifth game. Kerber was down 15-40 but Halep missed a return and then Kerber released an overhead winner. Halep reached break point for the third time by flattening out her backhand crosscourt to lure Kerber into a running forehand error. Kerber attempted a backhand down the line drop shot but it sat up much too high, allowing Halep to scamper forward comfortably for a neatly executed backhand down the line winner. Halep had sealed the break for 3-2.

Halep was pushed to deuce in the sixth game but made it to 4-2 with an ace down the T in the ad court. Kerber held one last time for 3-4, but Halep was just too good. Serving at 4-3, 30-30, she measured a high trajectory forehand down the line impeccably, finding the corner with that winning shot. A service winner lifted Halep to 5-3. Kerber had fought tenaciously, but she had run out of replies. Serving at 3-5, 30-40, the German double faulted meekly into the net. Halep took the title with a 6-2, 6-3 win.

It was the biggest tournament victory of Halep’s career and her third Premier-level crown. Halep lost her first three career singles finals but has now won seven in a row. She had been on the brink of defeat in the second round against Kaia Kanepi in Doha, trailing 3-5 in the final set before rescuing herself. Thereafter, she did not lose a set during the tournament, and her semifinal display against Agnieszka Radwanska was stupendous. Down 2-5 in the first set, Halep fought back to win in straight sets against one of the game’s most masterful strategists, setting the stage for her final round triumph.

I expect a lot more from both Berdych and Halep this season. It is high time for Berdych to start demanding more from himself. He is capable of winning three or four tournaments this year and at least threatening to come through at a major. His lone appearance in a Grand Slam tournament final was back in 2010 at Wimbledon, when he upended both Roger Federer and Djokovic before losing to Nadal. Berdych should make a strong push to finish this year inside the top five in the world. As for Halep, she will not be content with her status at No. 9 among the women. She, too, is a viable top five candidate.

Berdych and Halep will both make their presence known all through 2014, and well beyond. I look forward to watching these two players regularly over the course of the immediate future.
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.