The Ballad of the Underdog: To Michael Berrer and Beyond
There is a lot to discuss following Rafael Nadal’s stunning first round loss in Doha. Much of this talk will center around Nadal himself, and the state of his game. When a 14-time Grand Slam champion loses his first match of the year to a player ranked No. 127 in the world, questions will undoubtedly surface.
What you might not hear is the other side of the story, the one that involves Germany’s Michael Berrer, a man in the midst of his final season on tour, who captured the victory of his career after getting blitzed in the opening set.
The stars of today’s game have the power to draw attention, win or lose. It’s a natural part of the way we view the sport and the athletes who play it. And yet, such a view invariably forgets the other guy. It fails to account for how he deserves recognition as well for, you know, winning the match.
For pulling of such an improbable victory, Michael Berrer deserves acknowledgement.
We just saw a 34-year-old journeyman, one who was never ranked in the world’s Top 40, and one who had only won three tour level matches in 2013, beat a tennis legend out of nowhere. To illustrate just how big of a favorite Nadal was, the German entered this match with a total of 78 tour level match wins in his career. In 2013 alone, Nadal won 75.
Beyond a contextual deficit, Berrer was also down on the day, having emphatically lost the opening set, 6-1. Nadal was moving like a gazelle, striking his forehand with immense force and precision. He blew the ball past his 6’4″ opponent time and time again, whether he was moving backwards or forwards, left or right.
But after breaking for a 3-1 lead in the second set, Berrer never looked back. Relying on his massive serve and astute skills at the net, he went on the attack, taking the initiative into the forecourt, where his chances of winning points increased exponentially. When engaged in baseline rallies, Berrer was not shy about taking the ball early and going for the big shot when opportunity knocked. Realizing that Nadal’s level of play had decreased in a major way, the German didn’t completely red-line his game; it wasn’t necessary.
The moments of the match or, as Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson would say, “squeaky bum time,” came in the final set. Serving up another break at *2-1, Berrer faced two break points, one of which he saved with a challenge that was successful by the slimmest of margins.
Fast forward to 5-4 in the third, and Berrer found himself facing three more break points, only to guide himself over the finish line with his serve – along with an errant Nadal forehand – to clinch the match.
It was a career moment, one he will remember for the rest of his life. At times like these, we need to appreciate players like Berrer, those who ultimately make up the backbone of the ATP Tour. They play in remote locations with negligible prize money, all in the quest for coveted ranking points that will allow them to enter events where, just maybe, they will have the opportunity to face one of greats on center court. It’s incomprehensible when you think about what many of these guys are willing to sacrifice just to step on court with someone like Nadal.
We’re always in awe of the former No. 1’s fighting spirit, as well we should be. But take a minute at the beginning of the season to consider the amount of fight and perseverance a player like Michael Berrer has, and remember there are countless more out there, battling each day just for the chance to feel what he felt today.
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