Tuesday January 24th, 2012

Rafael Nadal dropped his first set of the tournament in a 6-7 (5), 7-6 (6), 6-4, 6-3 win over Tomas Berdych. (US Presswire)

MELBOURNE, Australia -- On Day 9 of the Australian Open, Rafael Nadal was tested, the officiating came into question again and the race for the new WTA No. 1 heated up in earnest. Here's a rundown of Tuesday's action.

What happened

Full flight: It took Nadal 4 hours and 16 minutes to beat Tomas Berdych 6-7 (5), 7-6 (6), 6-4, 6-3, reach his 18th major semifinal and set up a blockbuster showdown with Roger Federer, who advanced earlier in the day with a vintage performance against Juan Martin del Potro.

Berdych had a quality showing through most of the match, pounding his forehand with power and precision and rocking Nadal way back behind the baseline early. The Czech -- who was greeted by a smattering of boos when he took the court after refusing to shake Nicolas Almagro's hand in his last match -- looked unfazed by the crowd and the task of facing the 10-time Grand Slam champ. Berdych won the first set in a tiebreaker and fought back from 2-5 in the second set to get to another tiebreaker. But Berdych misfired mightily from both wings in the tiebreaker, giving Nadal newfound life with a forehand error at set point.

The old Berdych would have mentally folded after coming so close to a two-set lead over a guy he hadn't beaten in nine straight tries. But the new Berdych, the one who is fitter, stronger and more confident that he belongs among the elite, didn't check out -- even as Nadal changed his strategy for the better.

For the first two and a half sets, Nadal spent most of his time some 15 feet behind the baseline, returning serves from deep in the court and giving Berdych short balls to attack. If Berdych had been more consistent with those big shots, Nadal might have found himself in a two-set hole.

"The first set especially I felt that I started the match too nervous," Nadal said. "I wasn't able to hit the ball long. My movements weren't strong enough, fast enough."

But once he made the adjustment in the third set to hug the baseline on his returns and during the rally (possibly at the urging of Uncle Toni, who was gesticulating wildly from the box for him to move in), the entire match changed. That's when Nadal took control and finally seemed comfortable in the rallies. Nadal hit 34 forehand winners overall, and almost half of them came in the fourth set alone. By then, we were seeing vintage Rafa, blasting inside-out forehand winners at will. The legs were churning, the forehand was firing and even his backhand return produced winners.

For those who are looking forward to his semifinal clash against Federer, Nadal's fourth-set performance should inspire some confidence. The Spaniard is going to need that and then some facing his longtime rival, who dominated Del Potro in his 1,000th career match. I didn't think Federer could play that much better than he did at the end of last season in London, where he won the ATP World Tour Finals. I was wrong. His past two matches, against Bernard Tomic and Del Potro, have been absolute clinics.

Officiating nightmares continue: You would think all the bright-colored tennis kits would be enough to keep the umpires and line judges alert during the fortnight, but if you tuned in to watch the Nadal-Berdych match, you'd have seen evidence to the contrary. The line calling in this match was horrendous, and the mistakes had an impact.

At 5-5 in the first-set tiebreaker, Berdych hit a forehand long that Nadal waited too long to challenge. The Spaniard lost the point and his cool. Telling chair umpire Carlos Bernardes that his role was not one of just "a spectator," Nadal couldn't believe that Bernardes refused to overrule the call. Television replays showed the ball was well long, and so instead of having set point, Nadal was down 5-6 with Berdych serving. Berdych served an ace to win the set. An out-of-sorts Nadal continued to give Bernardes an earful as he walked to his chair.

Bernardes was right to refuse Nadal's request under the rule, which requires a player to stop play to request a challenge. Nadal said afterward that he didn't disagree with the call. His frustration stemmed from Bernardes' disinclination to assert himself and overrule a clearly missed call.

But the incident raises a question that has come up a number of times throughout the tournament. If the goal of the electronic review system is to get the call right, why shouldn't players be allowed to challenge calls regardless of whether the challenge is deemed "timely" or not? How about a rule that allows a player to challenge either before the other player steps to the line to serve (similar to the review system in the NFL that allows a challenge before the snap), or, in the case of a mid-point challenge, a player can challenge before hitting the next ball? That takes all the ambiguity out of the system, gives a player reasonable time and goes further to ensure that the right calls are made. Isn't that the point?

Azarenka advances: Just like their matchup in Sydney earlier this month, Victoria Azarenka rallied from a set down to defeat her good friend Agnieszka Radwanska 6-7 (0), 6-0, 6-2 in the quarterfinals. Azarenka, who had 10 of the match's 15 service breaks, improved to 10-0 this year and moved a step closer to her first Grand Slam final. She'll play Kim Clijsters, who knocked off No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki 6-3, 7-6 (4). You can read my recap of that match here.

New No. 1: With Clijsters' win, the WTA will have a new No. 1 on Monday. Petra Kvitova, Maria Sharapova or Azarenka will take the top spot, while Wozniacki will drop to at least No. 3 (if Sharapova wins the title, Wozniacki falls to No. 4). Here's how the race shapes up:

-- If Kvitova and Sharapova lose their quarterfinal matches Wednesday, then Azarenka will be No. 1.

-- Kvitova will be No. 1 if she equals Azarenka's result here and Sharapova doesn't win the title.

-- Sharapova must reach the final to have a chance at No. 1, with most scenarios requiring her to win the title.

Photo of the day

Rafael Nadal celebrates after defeating Tomas Berdych in the Australian Open quarterfinals. (John Donegan/AP)

Go Figure

91.4... Decibels registered by Azarenka's whooping grunt on Australia's Channel 7 "Whoo-Meter."

9... Men with 1,000 career matches, a list that Federer joined Tuesday.

519... Matches that Federer trails the all-time leader, Jimmy Connors, who played 1,519 and finished with a record of 1,242-277.

Video of the day

Nadal fights off set point in spectacular fashion.


Honorable mention to Nadal's "Bend it like Beckham" winner.

Bits and bobbles

Tuesday's scoreboard premonition: NADA BERD. Self-explanatory, I think.

Spotted in the hallways under Rod Laver Arena after Clijsters' win: Wozniacki's father, Piotr, giving Clijsters a high-five and offering her congratulations. Nice gesture.

 There was some doubles drama on Margaret Court Arena between the teams of Lisa Raymond and Liezel Huber and Sania Mirza and Elena Vesnina. On one of many match points Mirza/Vesnina earned in the third-set tiebreaker, Mirza hit a volley that Huber lunged for that appeared to bounce twice. The chair umpire didn't call the double bounce, Huber claimed she didn't see the double bounce, and Mirza and Vesnina went ballistic. “This Australian Open, all the umpires want to get in fights with the players!” Vesnina screamed.

Mirza/Vesnina proceeded to lose the next three match points before Mirza hit a forehand at Huber while she was patrolling the net, knocking the American down. Mirza and Vesnina won 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (6) and continued to complain to the umpire as they gathered their things. And in case you think winning heals all wounds, let's just say Vesnina's blood was still running hot after the match, when she sent a nice tweet to Raymond and called out Huber:


• Radwanska never has a problem speaking her mind. So when asked her thoughts on grunting, she let loose. "I'm kind of used to it, especially with Vika," she said of Azarenka.  "We know each other for many years.  About Maria [Sharapova], I mean, what can I say? For sure that is pretty annoying and it's just too loud."

Asked if the Tour should do something about it, she said "yes" and added: "Of course everybody can make some noise. This is tennis. It's really hard work. But I think it's just too loud. ... So if they want to do something, why not?  I don't think this is very nice to watch those kind of players that scream so much all the time. I don't think it's very necessary to scream that loud."

So there you go. It does bother the players. Maybe they should start saying something to the umpires.

• I was shocked to hear Clijsters say she refused to have her ankle scanned after she injured it. "Whatever it is, it is," she said. There's a fine line between being a gamer and being foolish. Here's hoping she hasn't damaged her ankle more than she thinks she has. It's too early in the season to be toying with one's health.

They said it

"A little bit. Sometimes. Rarely. It's more the girls than the opponent."-- Roger Federer, father of young twins, on whether he ever loses sleep before a big match.

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