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For a second straight day, a first-time Slam finalist targets perhaps the most coveted prize in the sport; can Tomas Berdych succeed where Vera Zvonareva failed?  Confronted with a similar conundrum of tackling the world #1 (although not the top seed in his case), the rising Czech shares the Russian’s reputation as a former mental midget who recently has surmounted emotional foibles to unlock previously unexploited potential.  In a more relevant sense, though, Berdych differs dramatically from the 2010 ladies’ runner-up, whose serving and shot-making abilities fell far short of those displayed by her opponent.  Superior to Nadal in serving and at least equal in shot-making, the nemesis of Federer and Djokovic possesses a game much more aligned with grass-court tennis than Zvonareva’s style.   Also unlike his Russian counterpart, the Czech has resoundingly proclaimed his right to play for the title by defeating two of the top three players in the world here, including the six-time champion.  Nevertheless, he has lost his last six meetings and last fourteen sets against the Spaniard, who ousted him from the All England Club three years ago.  The three wins that Berdych did score over Nadal occurred on hard courts in 2005 and 2006, when Rafa remained well below his scintillating best on what is still his least comfortable surface.

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But the towering Czech whom the 2008 champion will face on Sunday has evolved into a far more complete and confident player since his dazzling upset over Federer in Miami, during which he saved a match point.  As the Swiss star learned once again this week, Berdych now reacts to tense situations with a patience and poise that have dramatically reduced the unforced errors formerly at the core of his underachievement.  In the excruciatingly elongated second-set tiebreak against Djokovic, he demonstrated his newfound fortitude by shrugging off four squandered set points and calmly held his nerve until the Serb flinched.  Although he does continue to donate a few more double faults than he should, the Czech rarely concedes them at potentially back-breaking moments.  Striking high balls and low balls with equal conviction, he also has devoted considerable effort to improving his mobility as well as his court positioning.  Berdych has developed an acute instinct for when to approach the net (a crucial dimension of grass-court tennis) in addition to crisper execution when he arrives in the forecourt; he easily discerns when an opponent will hit a floating, off-balance reply and when he must await a more inviting opportunity.  On the other hand, he doesn’t match Nadal’s intensity on every point, often relaxing after having established substantial leads and allowing his opponents to creep back into such situations with careless shot selection or execution.  Whereas the less urgent Federer and Djokovic allowed him to escape these lapses, it’s unlikely that the perennially focused Rafa will prove so generous.  Instead of constantly hitting to the open court, Berdych should attempt to hit behind Nadal and force him to reverse direction occasionally.  Despite the world #1’s superlative movement, such a ploy would prevent him from settling into rallies as well as testing those still-dubious knees.  Yet the Czech must be prepared to hit one or two additional shots to finish rallies, a skill largely untested by his two marquee victims; brilliant at retrieving overheads, Nadal possesses greater speed and superior eye-hand coordination to anyone in the top 10.  Rather than allowing Rafa to probe the angles of the court, Berdych must pull the trigger early in the rally, pin the Spaniard behind the baseline, and smother him with a steady diet of flat, penetrating bombs, eschewing the slices to which he sporadically resorted in the semifinal.  This match must become a staccato, arhythmic exercise in first-strike tennis in order for him to prevail, so his mighty first serve might well prove the decisive factor in the outcome, whether for better or for worse.  When that shot is flowing as smoothly as it has for most of this fortnight, Berdych can rest comfortably in a citadel of routine service games while occasionally sallying forth when his opponents waver on their own serve.

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Entering this clash with equal confidence, Nadal should have gained considerable momentum from winning six consecutive sets against Soderling and Murray, responsible for three of his last four Slam defeats.  It’s probable that the match will feature at least one tiebreak, and the world #1 has won four of the six tiebreaks that he has contested with Berdych.  In order to discomfit the Czech when he strides to the service notch, Nadal must position himself aggressively on second-serve returns; he could light a flicker of doubt in his adversary’s mind that might impel him to seek greater consistency on the first serve and consequently diminish its sting.  As semifinal spectators will have observed, Berdych’s backhand falters more often than his forehand under pressure, so the former champion will hope to target that wing on crucial points.  A curious product of the Spaniard’s left-handedness, cross-court rallies will match each player’s strength (their forehands) to their opponent’s weakness (their backhands), so deuce-court-to-deuce-court exchanges favor Berdych while ad-court-to-ad-court exchanges benefit Nadal.  Just as when facing Soderling here and at Roland Garros, Rafa will seek to stretch the Czech wide of the sidelines in order to tempt him into low-percentage attempts to win points with one swing.  Unlike Soderling, however, Berdych ambitiously redirects the ball with regularity and remarkable accuracy, forcing his opponents to prepare for down-the-line missiles into the corners.  When we previewed the quarterfinals and semis, we advised both Federer and Djokovic to pull the Czech forward into the forecourt in uncomfortable situations, but they followed this recommendations far less often than we would have hoped.  Unleashing several sparkling passing shots in his own semifinal, Nadal will want to invite Berdych forward with dipping backhand slices and the occasional drop shot.  In neutral rallies, though, he must refrain from topspin-heavy shots that bounce halfway between the service line and the baseline, allowing Tomas to hit down on his groundstrokes as he prefers whenever possible.  Above all, Nadal can’t afford to settle into the passive, retrieving mentality that doomed Djokovic against Berdych, for no longer can he wait for the Czech to implode in a convenient shower of unforced errors.  The Spaniard must seize control of the rallies when the opportunity arises, or he will find himself the victim of a ruthless target practice session.  Here, his sublime talent for fluidly transitioning from defense to offense will prove pivotal.

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Armed with the immense serve and flat, bone-crushing groundstrokes of a Soderling, Del Potro, or Gulbis, Berdych closely adheres to the profile of those players who most trouble Nadal, although he may yet lack the swaggering fearlessness with which to approach this challenge.  Nevertheless, Rafa should draw upon his vastly deeper experience in such pressure-laden situations to compensate for his opponent’s electrifying offense.  In his last four appearances at Wimbledon, he has reached the final on every occasion and climbed to a perceptibly higher level of tennis each year.  While it would be virtually impossible to surpass the vertiginous heights that he reached in his epic 2008 triumph, we expect that Berdych’s ferocious offense will bring out the best in Nadal’s unrivaled counterpunching skills.  After four gritty (albeit grassy) sets, Rafa should reclaim the throne that he poignantly abdicated a year ago.

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