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It’s Rafael Nadal’s first match back since October 2016, and I decided to live-blog it at last minute. Tomas Berdych, the world no. 10, takes on the defending champion in the opening round of the Mubadala World Tennis Championships exhibition event.
BERDYCH 0-1 NADAL: NADAL BREAKS!
The fiercest of starts for Rafael Nadal, who drags Berdych from side to side until he strikes a clean winner off the baseline in the first point of the match. Powerful consistency dominates his Czech opponent. It’s not been bad from Berdych, but the big-server is broken to 15.
BERDYCH 0-2 NADAL: NADAL HOLDS
We’re caught up after a last-minute decision to provide live updates on this one (better late than never, huh?) A little more erratic from Berdych there as Nadal sustains the intensity. At least it’s only a service hold, but it’s a further advantage to the Spaniard.
BERDYCH 0-3 NADAL: NADAL BREAKS!
Nadal has missed this stage, and he wants to get back into things – fast. It’s just too fast for Berdych, who didn’t seem to have the upper hand even on serve. The Czech has lost 17 straight matches to Nadal, and the 14-time Grand Slam champion hinted at why with a phenomenal forehand pass to seal the double break lead.
BERDYCH 0 – 4 NADAL: NADAL HOLDS
The way Rafael Nadal is playing hardly gives one time to both watch the match and provide updates. But this one-sided contest only seems to thrill a jam-packed crowd, who have flooded in to see one of the all-time greats.
Nadal only looked in trouble once in this game, as he struggled to land a serve at 30-15. But a barrage of forehands ended in a wrong-footing winner once his second serve was in play, and a cross-court bomb from the same wing leaves Berdych stumbling. The Czech can match the Spaniard’s power, but he can’t summon the same biting finish. This set could soon be over.
BERDYCH 0 – 5 NADAL: NADAL BREAKS!
Berdych gets his fans’ hopes up with a 30-0 lead. Nadal tears them down again with sheer brilliance which includes a short backhand cross-court return winner and a spinning forehand off the sidelines that puts the Czech down ANOTHER break point.
A forehand blasted long from Nadal takes Berdych to momentary safety, and the big man hammers down a somewhat defiant ace. But Rafa is determined to show us something significant here, exhibition event or not. A scintillating forehand pass when the point looked lost kept him in the game, with a casual volley put-away conjuring up break point number two.
And the man is ON FIRE! A replayed point is no big deal for Nadal, who sticks out a long rally before blazing a cross-court forehand winner past a shell-shocked Tomas Berdych.
The crowd are drinking up every last drop of this, and I’m sure there are some rather emotional Rafans out there right now. This is sheer brilliance.
NADAL WINS FIRST SET 6-0
A slick backhand pass from virtually off the court is what Berdych has to come up with to get on the board. That’s 15-15, but Nadal doesn’t care. A trademark off-forehand is called wide and overruled, giving Nadal two set points. One loud “YES!” greets Berdych’s forehand return winner in response, but it’s too little, too late. Top spinning forehands down the line and across the court soon force the Berdych error, and that’s a magnificent set of tennis from the current world no. 9.
Oh, and by the way, that’s one massive joke of a ranking. 6-0, Rafael Nadal!
BERDYCH 1 – 0 NADAL: BERDYCH HOLDS (AT LAST!)
Two quick points open the game for Berdych, and a second serve out wide sets him up to dominate the next point. His put-away volley lands cross-court at an extreme angle, showing the pressure Nadal is putting him under.
But that has to relieve some of it. As he clinches his first game of the match to 15, Berdych raises triumphant arms in the air and laughs. At least he’s taking it well.
BERDYCH 1 – 1 NADAL: NADAL HOLDS
Not quite so hot from Nadal now, whose shots are landing that little bit further away from the sidelines. One forehand finds the net for 15-15, and Berdych’s depth forces the Spaniard to balloon another to finally fall into a hole, and silence the crowd.
But a key unforced error from Berdych relieved the pressure, and his running forehand into the net caused the Czech to tip back his head. He knows the opportunity he missed. A strong serve from Nadal and he’s levelled this up – although you would not have known he was in any danger. His expression did not change, and he did not flinch.
BERDYCH 2 – 1 NADAL: BERDYCH HOLDS
If ever there was a You Have Got To Be Kidding Me moment… it was ALMOST then. Up 15-0, Berdych dictated the point with flat, powerful forehands and backhands, both cross-court and up the line. But Nadal is as cool as a cucumber, and managed to get everything back. The higher-ranked player was lucky that the Spaniard’s forehand down the line was a fraction wide.
Still, there’s a lot more confidence about Berdych now. Seems to be trying to take the angles away from his dangerous opponent. Nadal’s uncle, Toni, looks on with an ever-unreadable expression as Berdych watches Nadal net a forehand, sealing a hold to 15 for the Czech. He’s getting there.
BERDYCH 2 – 2 NADAL: NADAL HOLDS
“OUT!” is the call, and Berdych grimaces. He knows he went for too much, and he knew he didn’t need to miss. But those low percentage shots he is having to go for.
The Czech makes up for the miss with a cross-court volley that leaves Nadal skidding to a surrendering halt. The Spaniard nails a forehand into the corner to reach game point, but it’s finally deuce on the Nadal serve as Berdych makes a point of moving into the court.
This is heating up. An insane forehand return winner from Berdych sets up a maiden break point, but Nadal sets things up well with his next serve. A winning smash off a moon-ball makes it game point, and Nadal thinks the game is his after a big serve. But not quite! Smiles all round after Hawk-Eye reveals he missed it by a splinter, and a miss in the ensuing point takes us back to deuce.
Nevertheless, Berdych will have to wait for another shot at the break after a wide serve and a long Czech forehand seal the hold for Nadal. Sometimes brilliant returning – and a respectable standard of play – just isn’t brilliant enough.
We feel you, Tomas.
BERDYCH 3 – 2 NADAL: BERDYCH HOLDS
Could be a key mistake from Berdych as, running through the ball, he slices an approach shot into the net. It gives Nadal the 15-30 advantage, but Rafa goes for too much at 30-30. Berdych is really going for those serves now (what choice does he have?), and a slick off-forehand off Nadal’s cross-court return wrong-foots the crowd favourite.
Goran Ivanisevic doesn’t look worried, and right now, neither does Berdych. Nadal to serve from behind once more – after asking for towels to clear the moisture from the court during the changeover. The word is that it’s pretty humid.
BERDYCH 3 – 3 NADAL: NADAL HOLDS
Nadal might as well have yelled “So what?” alongside that opening off-forehand winner from the centre of the baseline. Berdych was rooted to the spot, a Throwback Thursday to the entire first set.
At 40-0, Nadal targets an ace down the T. A smattering of applause shows how close he was, but the Spaniard doesn’t bat an eyelid. Another off forehand winner, and you can almost see the smoke trailing behind it. This is still, at times, insane.
BERDYCH 4 – 3 NADAL: BERDYCH HOLDS
He’s not all power, this guy. Berdych has not been bad at all today, and he showcases his quality with a cute drop-shot for 40-0 that Nadal has no chance of reaching.
Nevertheless, his opponent has far outstripped him in the realms of consistency. A double fault and a missed forehand down the line aid Nadal to 40-30, and Berdych’s fiery forehand approach shot blasts an inch long for deuce.
Few are surprised as Nadal challenges a scintillating Berdych forehand winner, but Hawk-Eye confirms that the ball kissed the sideline before spinning wide. No matter. A fierce put-away volley from Nadal spins well out of Berdych’s reach for deuce.
Sheer quality from both sides of the net now. A stunning serve, a game return and a blazing cross-court backhand winner combine to gain Berdych the advantage, but Nadal’s approach pass laughs in the Czech’s face. What does the guy have to do to win this? The Spaniard forces him to hit multiple put-away shots before he again regains the AD after a limp net from Nadal. In the end, he’s lucky to survive that game, as Nadal gifts the final point.
BERDYCH 4 – 4 NADAL: NADAL HOLDS
Will we ever get bored of that off-forehand? I, for one, certainly will not. Nadal whips another one in front of a startled Berdych, who can only stand watching as his opponent cracks a forehand winner off the baseline for a love hold.
BERDYCH 4 – 5 NADAL: NADAL BREAKS!
Having come so close, Nadal will be desperate to break here. Desperate enough to strike the ball right at Berdych, who just about manages to defend himself at the net before Nadal puts the pass away.
Down two break points, the Czech bravely targets the baseline, moving into the net to save the first with a volley. But it’s not enough. Heck, Berdych’s quality simply is not enough! That drop-volley would have been enough for him against most players, but the speedy Spaniard is up and at him, quick reflexes sending a volley into the open court to get the break.
He’s serving for it!
RAFAEL NADAL WINS 6-0 6-4!
Surely this is the last game. A clean forehand winner down the line takes Nadal to 30-0, and a backhand cross-court winner takes the wind out of Berdych’s sails for good. Fittingly, he finishes with an ace.
A good-natured hug at the net. Tomas Berdych knows he was well and truly outplayed by a vintage Rafael Nadal today in Abu Dhabi. He will play Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a match for fifth and sixth place tomorrow, with Nadal now set to face world no. 3 Milos Raonic – the man he beat in last year’s final – in the semis.
Was that one of the Spaniard’s best ever performances? Leave a comment and let us know your thoughts!
“Very happy to be back. Fantastic memories, it’s easy [to] play [here.] Thank you to Mubadala and Abu Dhabi government for making this unique event.” – RAFAEL NADAL
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