Having played quite brilliantly to crush the nation’s alternative outlet of sporting patriotism, Rafael Nadal’s destiny in tomorrow’s Wimbledon final seems clear: he will complete his comeback from last year’s injury-induced loss of form to win his second consecutive Grand Slam and prove, once more, that he’s easily the best player in the world. But to do that he must beat Thomas Berdych, an opponent he can’t have contemplated facing at the start of the tournament. Berdych hasn’t exactly come from nowhere – he reached the semi-finals at Roland Garros and is seeded 12th at Wimbledon – but it’s still a major shock for him to have got this far, especially as he had to beat both Federer and Djokovic to do so. If he beats Nadal tomorrow, he would be Wimbledon’s most improbable winner since Richard Krajicek in 1996.
But maybe the match won’t be the walk in the park for Nadal that everyone expects it to be. The player Berdych most resembles is Robin Söderling, who, in a not dissimilar fashion, emerged from relative obscurity to reach the final of last year’s French Open (beating Nadal to get there). Both players have a history of riling Nadal, and their playing styles are strikingly similar. They are tall (Berdych is 6’5”, Soderling 6’4”) and have games based on a destructive, high-tossed serve and a flat, windmill-like forehand. There is a growing contingent at the top of the men’s game who play like this: others include the currently injured Juan Martin del Potro (6’6”) and the recent Queen’s winner, Sam Querrey (also 6’6”). Pundits sometimes debate what the ideal height for a tennis player is, and until now 6’1” or thereabouts was thought to provide the right combination of power, reach and athleticism. (Federer and Nadal are both 6’1”.) But the giants increasingly seem to be taking over and maybe in a few years no one who isn’t at least 6’3” (Andy Murray’s height) will have a chance.
The evidence suggests that if Nadal struggles against anyone, it is precisely these lanky powerhouses. Such players potentially have two attributes that can nullify Nadal’s maddeningly consistent, ultra-topspun game. One is the ability to blitz him with aces, which at least makes holding their serves a possibility. The second is their long arms, which enable them to get on top of the viciously rearing Nadal groundshot and play it with a degree of comfort. (Impossible for only moderately tall men like Federer.) Berdych’s head-to-head record against Nadal is a surprisingly respectable three wins to seven losses: who knows what may happen tomorrow.