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A Sunday for Second Chances: ATP Miami Final Preview

A fortnight ago, Andy Roddick came up just short against the startlingly resurgent Ivan Ljubicic in the Indian Wells final, a match that the top-ranked American entered as the distinct favorite. After a sparkling semifinal triumph over Rafael Nadal, Roddick now has the opportunity to expunge his desert disappointment by capturing the Miami title. Yet his opponent has hurtled into the final Sunday on a Ljubicic-worthy run, during which he downed not only Federer but Verdasco and Soderling. Having endured years littered with meltdowns and underachievement, Berdych has secured himself a second chance in a broader sense; as Soderling has proven, it's never too late to reverse the trajectory of one's career. Will the Czech cap his tournament with an exclamation point, or will Roddick settle his unfinished business from Indian Wells? Full preview straight ahead...

Head-to-head:

Roddick leads 5-2, but the hard-court edge is only 3-2. When they met in San Jose several weeks ago, the American prevailed in a pair of tiebreaks after escaping from more than one perilous situation; before the Australian Open, moreover, Roddick rallied from a one-set deficit to mentally outlast the fragile Czech. Berdych's only win since 2006 came in a Tokyo semifinal two years ago, when he edged the American in a third-set tiebreak after erasing a 3-5 deficit. In general, the head-to-head suggests that Roddick has a definite edge but can't afford to underestimate his lower-ranked opponent as he did two weeks ago. Only a consistently crisp, fiercely focused performance will overcome Berdych if he remains in the magnificent groove that he has found at this tournament.

Recent form:

Opening 2010 with mediocre results, Berdych fell to the pedestrian Evgeny Korolev in the second round of the Australian Open before losing consecutive quarterfinals to Roddick and Gulbis. The sleeping giant began to awaken in Indian Wells, where he annihilated Troicki and Verdasco; in his fourth-round loss to Nadal, he displayed unexpected tenacity after a lethargic beginning and nearly forced Rafa into a third set. Tremors in the desert then escalated into an earthquake in Key Biscayne, where he has repeatedly risen to the occasion under extreme pressure. Down a set and a break to Verdasco one round after upsetting Federer, he refused to satisfy himself with one stunning victory and clawed his way to a gritty win over the mercurial Spaniard.

Achieving his fourth final in six tournaments this year, Roddick has accumulated one of the ATP's most impressive resumes. Hampered by a shoulder injury in Australia, he surrendered a five-set quarterfinal to Marin Cilic but rebounded immediately to reach the championship matches in San Jose and Indian Wells. Winning his first final of the year over Stepanek in Brisbane, he fell to Verdasco and Ljubicic on the last two occasions. In these two Masters 1000 events, however, he has lost only three total service games, so Berdych's best chance may be to drag him into a tiebreak--Ljubicic managed to defeat him two weeks ago without breaking his serve.

Three pieces of advice for Berdych:

1) Attack at every opportunity. Much the more consistent player, Roddick will have the edge in neutral rallies. Consequently, Berdych must exploit his superior firepower to pull the trigger whenever an opening presents itself. If he hits a few early targets, the American might play ever more conservatively and thus allow Tomas to create more angles and perhaps inject the occasional drop shot. If he misses early, however, he needs to trust his game rather than retreating from aggression; sooner or later, he'll almost certainly find the range with his heavy artillery.

2) Construct backhand-to-backhand rallies. The one significant edge that he possesses over Roddick is his far stronger backhand, which rattles through the court with greater pace and depth than does the American's counterpart. Backhand artists like Baghdatis have succeeded when drawing Roddick into a crosscourt backhand rally, eventually receiving a short, easily attackable ball or coaxing Roddick to sacrifice his court position by running around to hit a forehand. Although Berdych prefers his own forehand to his backhand, he doesn't enjoy a marked advantage on that wing. In this case, he'll profit more from playing to Roddick's weakness than to his own strength.

3) Feed off the hostility in the atmosphere. Berdych played inspired tennis to defeat Nadal at the Spaniard's home Masters event in Madrid, motivated substantially by spite for the partisan crowd. (After his victory, he taunted them by raising his finger to his lips in a gesture that infuriated the genteel Rafa.) There won't be many spectators in his corner tomorrow, but he might well draw more inspiration from the audience's antipathy than he would from their applause. If you're cheering for Roddick, don't cheer for him too forcefully.

Three tips for Roddick:

1) Vary speeds and spin. As Soderling discovered to his misfortune, Berdych enjoys nothing more than trading flat, hard groundstrokes from the baseline while waiting for a propitious moment to smack a forehand off a line or corner. He often falters when this rhythm is interrupted by heavy topspin balls (a tactic insufficiently explored by Verdasco) or deep but medium-paced groundstrokes, which tempt him to overhit. In order to disrupt his timing and footwork, Roddick should try to give Berdych as many different types of shot as possible, deploying his superior versatility as a weapon.

2) Bring Berdych to the net. Although reasonably competent in the forecourt when he comes there on his own terms, Berdych lacks improvisational instincts when lured inwards by his opponent. Roddick could force him into this uncomfortable position with low, biting slices or chipped backhand returns, after which the lumbering Czech would leave himself open to any moderately challenging passing shot. His overheads here have been excellent, though, so Roddick might want to shelve the offensive lob despite its effectiveness during the crucial turning point of his win over Nadal.

3) Don't underestimate the opponent. In the Indian Wells final, Roddick looked a little startled that the long-fading Ljubicic was performing at such a high level early in the match. For most of the first set, he played unimposing tennis in the apparent hope that the Croat would eventually miss. It didn't happen then, and he shouldn't expect that it will happen today. If Berdych held firm against Federer under extreme pressure, he won't be intimidated by Roddick either; this match almost certainly will be won, not lost, by one of its protagonists.

Shot-by-shot breakdown:

Serve: Roddick

Return: Berdych

Forehand: Both

Backhand: Berdych

Volleys: Roddick

Movement: Berdych, in terms of foot speed; Roddick, in terms of footwork

Mental: Roddick

PICK: It's tempting to recall Indian Wells and foretell another surprise titlist. A win by Berdych might signal an anarchic year in the ATP, an entertaining thought after the stranglehold in which a tiny handful of players have long held all of the significant events. But we suspect that Roddick will deliver just enough clutch serves and extend just enough rallies to restore order in the court after a tense, compelling encounter. In the final analysis, he needs this win much more than does Berdych.

***

We'll come back tomorrow with a Miami tournament wrap in report card style. Who aced the exam and who needs to study harder for next time? Don't forget, though, that even the sternest teacher has a pet pupil. ;)

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Tags: ATP, Berdych, Cilic, Ericsson, Federer, Ivanovic, Ljubicic, Miami, Open, Roddick, More…Sony, Stepanek, Verdasco, WTA

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