Tiny details to decide high-octane clash
A thrilling Day 5 of the Australian Open is upon us, capped by the most high-profile third round matchup at a Grand Slam in recent memory, as No. 10 seed Tomas Berdych is set to face No. 17 Roger Federer.
I’m sure neither is excited about having to overcome such a stout challenge this early while the likes of world No. 56 Malek Jaziri and No. 50 Mischa Zverev are duking it out against each other on Court 2. Yet, our two stars should feel relieved they remain in contention. Oh, hey Novak Djokovic!
When Charles Darwin coined the term “The Survival of the Fittest” in the 19th century, he was most likely not referring to a tennis tournament. However, we might as well apply his Theory of Evolution to the 2017 Aussie Open. It’s been a slaughterhouse so far. Juggernauts like the aforementioned Djokovic, Agniezskaa Radwanska, or Simona Halep are packing their bags. Besides, ATP heavyweights Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori were on the brink of elimination on the first day. Only the most resilient specimen will find a way to hoist the trophy next weekend.
Back to our blockbuster clash, Berdych and Federer have played each other 22 times over a 12-year span. The Czech shocked the world when he delivered a gigantic upset at the 2004 Athens Olympics in their first meeting. In contrast, the Swiss came on top the last time, exactly a year ago at Melbourne Park. Overall, the 17-time major champion dominates the rivalry 16-6.
Late in 2015, I thoroughly analyzed how Federer fared on break point opportunities against his fiercest 14 rivals. Using the very useful data provided by Tennis Abstract I compared the percentage of returns points won versus a player with the rate at he was able to convert his break point chances. Then I made up the Clutch Differential (% of break points won minus % of return points won), which is far from being the Holy Grail of stats, but if the sample is big enough it can give us an idea of how shaky Federer’s racket gets when the Swiss enjoys a break point opportunity. To no one’s surprise, the Basel native has had big-time struggles against Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, especially at the Grand Slam level. Nevertheless, the numbers show he usually owns Berdych when the stakes are high.
Here’s the updated version of the table against The Birdman:
|Federer vs Berdych|
|*Overall Matches||22||Finals||3||Grand Slams||7|
|*Overall RPW %||39.5%||Finals RPW %||41.8%||GS RPW %||38.4%|
|*Overall BPW %||43.8% (167)||Finals BPW %||48.3% (29)||GS BPW %||47.0% (66)|
|*Clutch Differential||4.3%||Clutch Differential||6.5%||Clutch Differential||9.6%|
|*Overall H2H||16 W – 6 L||Finals H2H||3 W – 0 L||GS H2H||5 W – 2 L|
|No stats from 2004 Athens Olympics R32 (Berdych won 4-6 7-5 7-5) & 2007 Davis Cup Playoff (Federer won 7-6 7-6 6-3). So the stats correspond to a 15-5 record.|
The conclusion I came up with in late 2015 remains valid today:
“Not only has Berdych allowed average or above average overall returning numbers, but he’s also melted down under pressure. Berdych has always had the aura of playing the top dogs close but then falling short when it matters. These numbers corroborate that description. In his two losses versus the Czech at Grand Slams, Federer is just 5/14 on break points, a lowly seven break points per match average and 35.7% conversion rate. In his five wins, the numbers spike to 26/52, 10.25 BPPM, and 50% conversion rate.”
Brief and easy: if Federer manages to generate double digit break points, the odds of him advancing to the round of 16 are sizable given Berdych’s propensity to crumble in crunch time.
Sure, Federer is rusty. He performed far from his best against Jürgen Melzer and Noah Rubin. He better step up his game if he wants to win No. 18. Still, he owns the mental edge over the 31-year-old Czech, who is also past his prime himself.
Only one of them can prevail. It may or may not be the fittest, but it will certainly be whoever is the sharpest under pressure.
Clear your schedule to find out who.
Rod Laver Arena. Night Session. Second Match.
*Home favourite Ashleigh Barty will face Mona Barthel at 7:00 p.m. local time in the previous duel*