Increasingly Jiggy With It

Madrid Masters, Final

(3) Federer d. (6) Berdych, 3/6 7/5 7/5

Roger Federer today defeated Tomas Berdych in the final of the Madrid Masters, thereby cementing his place as the premiere blue clay player of our time. It was his twentieth Masters title – drawing him abreast with Rafael Nadal on the all-time leader board – his tenth career title on clay, and it guarantees that 2012 will be the tenth consecutive year in which he claims at least four titles. He also becomes the first man to win three titles in Madrid, and the first to win it twice on clay in its illustrious four year history. For those who find simple delight in just savouring Federer’s numbers, his recent results have been nothing short of, well, delightful.

The score line generally shouldn’t be relied upon to properly reflect the actual contours of a given tennis match, since it so often obscures as much as it reveals. But occasionally it tells you enough, inspiring that strange fuzzy glow we feel when life imitates art, or when Will Smith enters the building (more on this later). Today’s score is unusual (I can barely recall seeing it before), yet gratifying in that it perfectly evokes a match in which Berdych was astonishingly strong early – his version of unplayable recalls Marat Safin for me – yet ultimately failed to stay with Federer when the going got tightest.

The opening set featured twelve winners from Berdych, to just two unforced errors, and saw Federer stage a mighty fight just to make it as close as it was. Federer was broken in his opening service game, courtesy of that sophisticated double-bluff fake-dropshot forehand slice thing he occasionally does, the one that sees him summarily canonised when it comes off, and ridiculed when it doesn’t. It didn’t come off, and brought up a break point, which Berdych took by blasting a backhand return across court, his third winner of the game. Normally on clay a single break would not prove decisive, but the phrase ‘normally on clay’ is a wishful one to utter in Tiriac’s Enchanted Cube, especially against a guy holding as firmly as the Czech. That he was doing this while serving at 42% tells you plenty about his ground game, which was ferocious. Federer played fine, and was frequently left watching winners streak by, an even more interested spectator than the rest of us.

For whatever reason, Federer had tremendous trouble holding serve from the far end today – in all he was broken three times from that end, and never from the other – so it seemed like a dicey prospect when he stepped up to serve for the second set, having ridden an early break, and blown a few set points on return the game before. Sure enough, he was broken, with Berdych saving the only set point with consummate, scrambling defence, and then sealing the break with more of the same. Federer, with it all to worry about, hardly looked concerned at all, although his legion fans made their feelings clear via various social media. At 5/6, Federer lifted, and brought up another pair of set points on Berdych’s serve, with his favoured short slice pass combo – recall how he broke open the Indian Wells final with that play – and a stretching forehand return winner onto the sideline. Berdych double faulted, neither his first of the day, nor his last. Set Federer. Music began to rock through the Box, and the camera picked out Will Smith, seated with his wife. ‘Is he getting jiggy with it?’ asked Jason Goodall. ‘He is!’ exclaimed Robbie Koenig. He was.

With his second serve success rate soaring into the forties – it had been mired in the twenties in the opening set – Federer fell behind 0-30 on each of his first three services in the deciding set, but each time contrived to eke out a hold, saving three break points. Berdych was holding more comfortably, until suddenly, serving at 3/4, he wasn’t. Federer lifted again, and moved to 0-40 with three excellent points, the best of them a clean backhand return winner up the line. The Swiss thereupon returned to spectator mode, although he wasn’t to blame for this. Three vast and assured aces from Berdych, all directed past Federer’s forehand wing, mocked the very idea of break point, before a pair of double faults reminded us that pressure has an internal logic of its own, which too often cannot be gainsaid. 5/3, with Federer to serve for the championship. Fatefully, he was again serving from the bad end. Again he was broken, this time without even gaining a match point. Again it was Berdych not merely seizing his opportunity, but extraordinarily rendering back to Ostrava, whereupon it a confession was extracted under torment.

Still Federer looked unfazed, while many of his fans proved that whatever platform eventually replaces Twitter will need a better way of expressing a collective aneurysm than incoherent strings of text, produced by foreheads repeatedly striking keyboards. The tension was, to be fair, immense. It only mounted by the time Berdych stepped up to serve at 5/6. As in the second set, he fell behind quickly. Federer had three championship points. Then suddenly he had none. They’d both won 101 points each. It could not have been tighter. Some desperate defence from Federer earned another match point, and a Berdych forehand error off a tricky short return sealed the match. Federer turned to his player’s box, his arms aloft, satisfaction and relief suddenly scrawled clearly across his face.

Berdych was gracious in his runner up speech – praising Roger – as was Federer immediately afterwards, praising Nadal. Tiriac’s short speech drew boos and whistles. Then it got weird. For some unfathomable reason Will Smith was also loitering on the hastily erected podium, although the reason became clear when he was called upon to present Federer with his suit from the new Men In Black film, framed behind glass. ‘Roger likes his suits,’ remarked Goodall, ‘Might be a bit of breaking and entering there.’ Smith and Federer appear to be of a size, which was fortunate. Had Berdych won, it would have been a snug fit. Perhaps they had another suit ready. Still, baffling as it was, it somehow resulted in a nice moment, and a new addition for Roger’s pool room, to go with the flotilla of Dubai ships, and another Madrid trophy, which looks, as ever, like the world’s cruellest sex toy.

Madrid’s narrative this week has inevitably centred on the blue clay, although as we progressed through the final weekend I was interested to note how the tide of public sympathy appeared to turn, flowing against Nadal and Djokovic, and swirling around Billy Jean King’s remark that ‘champions adapt’. Federer and Berdych certainly did that. The Rome Masters is already underway, so they’ll now need to adapt to that pretty quickly. For myself, I would have no problem with seeing more blue clay (providing the footing is more secure), but I’ll be happy to be rid of the complaining about it. It turned out to be a dangerous surface upon which no one was hurt, an unpredictable surface in which only seeded players reached the quarterfinals, that produced the first great Masters final in over a year, capping a memorable event where Roger Federer once again reigns supreme.

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