Tomas Berdych feels he can become fifth member of tennis's world elite
Donald McRae | The Guardian
Monday, April 14, 2014
'It's about putting all the pieces together – but the puzzle is really big," Tomas Berdych says wryly as he considers the size and complexity of his ambition to break into the top four of men's tennis with a first grand slam win. At the start of the European clay court season, the world No5 smiles for, in his adopted home of Monaco, the 28-year-old Czech emerges as a far more engaging man than the serious professional he appears on court, or during banal press conferences.
"You have to be extremely professional," Berdych says. "That's what I need to get the best out of my tennis. But people only see the guy who looks like this [Berdych pulls an amusing face of constipated concentration]. They are looking at this 'focused' guy who doesn't do anything. It's very boring. And, of course, you get asked the same questions. If someone did the stats you would probably find the same 10 questions after every match. So that's why I like Twitter to show a different side of myself."
Soon after Roger Federer appointed Stefan Edberg as his new coach last December, to follow the addition of Boris Becker to Novak Djokovic's entourage a week earlier, Berdych revealed his sense of humour on Twitter: "Breaking news!!! #tb hire new coach ...#wearefamily" When you clicked on the attached image a picture of an old bus emerged with the words "Vintage Coach Hire".
He tweeted later: "I have big problem with my new coach ... he drinks so much uffff #wearefamily". The accompanying picture was of a petrol pump filling up his imaginary gas-guzzling old coach.
Berdych is equally quick to acknowledge the fierce drive of the world's leading players as they strive to either retain their supremacy or to crack the old vanguard and join Stanislas Wawrinka, who became a new grand slam winner at this year's Australian Open. Berdych lost to Wawrinka in an excruciatingly tight four-set semi-final. "It was very close against Stan," he says, sighing. "There were three tie-breaks."
Wawrinka had also beaten Djokovic, winning an epic quarter-final, and he defeated Rafael Nadal in the final. It was the first time in 13 attempts that Wawrinka prevailed over Nadal and it bolstered Berdych and other aspiring grand slam winners. For years they have been kept at bay by Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and, more recently, Andy Murray.
"Stan gave all of us new hope and new energy," Berdych says. "He showed it's possible. From 2005, there were very few players who won a grand slam besides those four [in the eight-and-a-half years separating the 2005 French Open and Wawrinka's Australian breakthrough, only Juan Martín del Potro, who won the 2009 US Open, broke the monopoly that saw the 34 other grand slams shared between the "big four"]. It's incredible.
"But now it's absolutely right to say it's opening up, and this is why I don't feel tired after 12 years [on tour]. I have a new impulse and I'm very close. I have extra energy to work harder and get higher because I know it also took Andy [Murray] a long time to win his first slam."
Murray, after numerous losing finals, won the US Open in 2012 and Wimbledon last year. Returning to the theme of appointing a new coach to complete the mazy grand-slam jigsaw, Berdych stresses that Murray's recruitment of Ivan Lendl "was a really big factor. I know Ivan well and he definitely had a big influence on Andy. Ivan didn't teach him anything new technically but psychologically he did."
No that he and Lendl have parted, Murray has the tricky task of choosing his next coach. "It doesn't really matter if it's a big name or a more ordinary guy," Berdych says. "Andy could choose someone very different. But they need to click. You definitely need the right chemistry, psychologically.
"When you see someone coaching Federer you think: 'Did the guy pay Roger to learn from him?' But now it's very nice because, when Roger was young, Stefan was his idol. This is an example of the strange chemistry you need. I'm not saying Stefan can't give him one or two tips but, really, what can you say to a guy who has won 17 slams? It's just about chemistry, and it can give Roger a lift."
Berdych has been coached since 2009 by the more obscure Tomas Krupa, another Czech. "He was in the top 100 of doubles and ranked about 250 in singles but he coached Radek Stepanek when he was at his best, at No8, and now he's with me. Many times I get asked if I am looking for any names [to coach him] and, yeah, there is still a window for that. I'm open to it."
So would Berdych consider changing his coach? "Yes," he says candidly before revealing how alarmed he and other players were by the news that Magnus Norman had been appointed as Wawrinka's coach last year. Norman had transformed the Swede Robin Söderling from a journeyman into a grand slam finalist, who beat the usually impregnable Nadal at the French Open, but once Norman and his wife started a family he stopped coaching. "It was definitely not good news for the rest of us," Berdych says with a smile when reflecting on Wawrinka's success in persuading Norman to help him.
Berdych has come agonisingly close to a major victory – most notably in 2010 when he beat Federer and Djokovic in back-to-back wins at Wimbledon . "And then there's Rafa in the final," he says with a gruesome grin, remembering his disappointing loss to Nadal.
Wimbledon still offers his best hope of becoming a champion. "Yes. But I'm laughing because I remember really struggling in my first years on the grass. Then my first grand slam final is Wimbledon! So everything is possible. But the grass changed significantly and you can move so much more easily. It suits my game now. Last year I played at Queen's for the first time and it worked really well. So I'm glad to be going back this year. I don't know if they want to hear it at Wimbledon but the grass at Queen's is far better."
Last year Berdych revealed a glimpse of his real character when he and Lendl played a charity match at Queen's against Murray and the former British No1 Tim Henman. The event was staged on behalf of Ross Hutchins, recovering from chemotherapy, and his Rally Against Cancer charity. Hutchins has since made a full recovery and is back on the doubles circuit – while also accepting a new role as tournament director at this year's Aegon Championships at Queen's.
"I loved playing that match for Ross," Berdych says. "We're the same age and I remember him from the junior circuit. He's a great guy and it's amazing what he did while the rest of us are complaining about how bad we're playing."
In London, when not being tested by the usual travails of the pro circuit, Berdych and his girlfriend, the Czech model Ester Satorova, "sometimes just take the underground and go into the city. When there is a free afternoon we like to walk around London. It's a beautiful city."
Few millionaire sportsmen use the Tube but Berdych is a grounded character. He suggests that Satorova works in a far more unforgiving world – for modeling, especially in New York, can be a brutal business. "I've got to know this world more and more through her and it's tough. In a few ways it's similar to tennis – you need to be away from home and the age factor is similar.
"But in tennis you can control it more. If you perform well you can do it. There you can look beautiful and perform well but without the right person to push you, it's hard. It's still good she has a goal and she wants to achieve it."
Berdych's own target is clear and his consistent progress mirrors the steady success of his country's tennis. At this year's Australian Open, the Czech Republic, with a population of only 10.5 million, still produced nine men and 14 women in the singles draw. "It's very nice how you see it but it's a very different point of view to the Czech media. You rightly see us as a small country with a limited number of players but in Czech they got used to Lendl and [Martina] Navratilova. Yes, they are born in Czech, but they both play for the US. For me it's great we can keep this history going with our players today."
The Czech Republic, inspired by Berdych, have won the Davis Cup for the past two years but he rolls his eyes. "We won the second time and the first question was: 'Are you going to make the hattrick?' But we won the semi-final against Argentina and the next week it was the draw for the following year. So after getting to the final my first phone call was: 'What do you think about the draw – Holland at home?' I said: 'We're going to play the second final in a row and you're asking me about next year's first round?'
Berdych's commitment is illustrated by the Davis Cup doubles match he and Lukas Rosol won against Switzerland's Wawrinka and Marco Chiudinelli last year in seven hours and two minutes. "There were some funny stories. In Davis Cup you have just two toilet breaks. In seven hours it's not enough. So what did we do? When a game was over we both run out of the arena where there was parking – sorry to say that but we had to go. There were guys smoking, and they were looking at us, and I said: 'Sorry, don't worry.' We did it twice. But we also won."
After a 70-minute interview, Berdych is less in need of a toilet break than a fierce two-hour practice session with Nadal. It is instructive, at a deserted Monte Carlo club, to watch Berdych trying to keep pace with the relentless ferocity of Nadal. Afterwards his shirt is soaked in sweat but he smiles as he comes over to ask if he can take a shower before joining me and the photographer. When Berdych returns, and the clouds lift to let in the early-evening sunshine, he marvels at a different view of centre court.
"I've never sat here," he says enthusiastically as he looks down from the empty stands at the clay where Nadal had been smacking balls at him with vicious force. "It's beautiful."
But surely Berdych must curse the enduring presence of the big four when some pundits have suggested he might have been world No1 in a different era? "Of course. Maybe for a few weeks it could happen that, in another era, I could have been [No1]. But I can compete with them and be part of this tennis history. I've managed to beat all of them, at least once, so I'm not complaining.
"And now there is more of a chance. It's extremely tough but if it becomes reality that one day I lift a big trophy it's going to be worth five of them. The feeling will be even more special. I think I can win a slam. That's my main goal and if I could choose one then, yes, it would have to be Wimbledon. But, honestly, I would take any one of them."