Tomas Berdych has never played a Wimbledon final (in fact, he's never played any Grand Slam event final). Rafael Nadal has played four in a row, even though he took an injury timeout from the event last year.
That puts Berdych at a significant disadvantage come Sunday afternoon, but I wouldn't read too much into it. Berdych hasn't just had a great Wimbledon, knocking off the likes of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. He's had a great year, which is why you can't treat his performance here in London as a fluke. And a loss (in the semifinals at the French Open a few weeks ago) has helped his confidence as much as some of his wins, including that big win over Federer in Miami back in the early spring -- the match that propelled him to his current level.
In Paris, Berdych came up just short in a bitter, five-set war with Robin Soderling. But the match gave Berdych a better understanding of what it takes to reach major finals, and it provided him with determination and confidence, two things he always seemed to lack at majors.
Rafael Nadal knows all this, which is why he's both lucky -- and wary. "Gonna be very, very difficult match," Rafa said after his semifinal win over Andy Murray. "Tomas is very aggressive player, very good serve, very good flat shots from the baseline. He's [had an] amazing tournament."
What Nadal didn't say, but it's writ large, is the between-the-lines, bread-and-butter analysis: Berdych is exactly the kind of guy who can give Nadal fits because he can dictate. He can dictate with his serve, and with his groundstrokes as well. And the guy who's presented Nadal with the most insoluble problems in recent times has been Juan Martin del Potro, a player much like Berdych (del Potro presently is off the tour, with a bad wrist).
Berdych is No. 5 on the aces leaderboard for the event, with 98. Coincidentally, that's exactly twice the number of aces Nadal has hit (he's No. 25 on the chart). This matters, because no matter what they say about how the grass has become slower and more rally-friendly, it still pays outsized dividends on the good serve, because the ball skids and slides in a unique, deadly way on naturally damp turf.
But the outlook for Nadal isn't as grim as it may appear. Although Nadal is no Berdych when it comes to serving, Berdych is no Nadal when it comes to returning. Andy Murray, Nadal's victim in the semifinals, conceded that his return let him down in his straight-sets loss to Nadal, and Murray is one of the best returners in the game.
So what we're looking at here, if Berdych can handle the mental demands of the biggest match of his career, is a bushel of hold games, and that adds up to tiebreakers. Berdych played a critical one in his semifinal match with Novak Djokovic, and though he won it, the tension got to him. He leaped to a 3-0 lead, faltered, then let four consecutive set points slip away before he managed to pull it out.
Nadal plays very careful tiebreakers, despite that uncharacteristic set-point double fault that deferred, if only for a few shots, his triumph over Murray. You can bet Nadal will remember that, should he get to that point in the match against Berdych.
The mental game will play a huge role in this match, and Nadal has shown that it's pretty hard to beat him on that playing field.