Novak Djokovic is no longer the only thing standing in the way of Rafael Nadal reclaiming the No. 1 ranking. As of Friday, that honor goes to the No. 5, Tomas Berdych. Given the blood, sweat and tears that Nadal has expended to get back to this point in his career, you almost want to take the racket away from Berdych and hand him a blindfold and a cigarette.
Nadal leads the non-rivarly 15-3. Of greater concern to Berdych and his crew: Nadal has a 14-match win streak against the tall, powerful star from the Czech Republic. What could possibly go wrong for Nadal?
Well, let’s start with this: Berdych’s three lone consecutive wins were all on hard courts. Granted, they also were way back in 2005 and 2006, but the prodigy Nadal had already been crowned a Grand Slam champion, so he wasn’t at his first county fair.
Plus, the two have met in the post-US Open period only once, with Nadal triumphant in a straight-sets blowout at the ATP World Tour Finals in London (on indoor hard). Nadal has traditionally struggled (in relative terms) during the fall, and at one time sounded off freely and often about having to play so deep into the calendar year.
Then there’s this: Over these next few weeks, Berdych is defending a semifinal (Shanghai Masters), a win (Stockholm) and two quarterfinals (Tokyo and the Paris Masters). Those are superb hard court credentials that attest to how dangerous Berdych is on a fast court, with that atomic serve and precise, relatively flat, stinging groundstrokes. He needs to defend those points to maintain his lofty ranking.
The factor that’s a little harder to quantify is the pressure Nadal is apt to feel, knowing that the great prize of No. 1 is at arm’s length -- but also that it’s almost inevitable that he will replace Djokovic in the proverbial tomorrow if not today. In a way, that’s almost more challenging than Nadal finding himself in a make-it or break-it situation. There’s no need for him to feel desperate and heroic, but wasting the opportunity isn’t an appealing option, either. In short, his situation is tricky.
This is all pretty obvious in the way Nadal spoke out of both sides of his mouth in the span of just two sentences Friday after he roared back to produce a three-set win over the Italian talent, Fabio Fognini.
Of his next match Nadal said: "I am going to have a very tough opponent in front of me. In the end, it's another match. True, it's a little bit more special for the circumstances, but nothing else.”
“But nothing else?”
What does this guy think? He ought to be playing for the No. 1 ranking as well as the lives of his family and closest friends?
Well, we’ve seen what Nadal has done on hard courts this year. He’s become a demon, a doomsday-stroking machine who hasn’t lost since he was upset in the first round at Wimbledon by Steve Darcis. This brings a whole new meaning to the phrase, "Let sleeping dogs lie." Nadal is still punishing his rivals for that dispiriting experience, and there’s no sign that he’s about to stop.
Nadal will feel some pressure Saturday, but in a larger sense, he’s entirely pressure free. He’s got no points to defend, having missed the entire second half of 2012 and the start of this year. When he won his French Open, he said that no matter what happened during the rest of the year, he would consider 2013 a great success. He felt he had accomplished his main goal and fulfilled his deepest wishes before we were halfway through June.
As Nadal’s game continued to improve (despite that glitch at Wimbledon), he became more devastating than ever before on outdoor hard courts and his spirits soared. By the time he won the US Open, he was almost giddy with joy and disbelief -- yet still free to play with reckless abandon and a light spirit thanks partly to the fact that everything that came his way would be gravy. He owed nothin’ to nobody.
Berdych is the kind of character who’s almost perfectly designed to be a spoiler, but it’s hard to imagine him playing the role this time.