|Posted on January 7, 2019 at 5:55 PM|
Don’t Sleep On Tomas Berdych In Melbourne
By Jim Smith
THE RUNNER SPORTS
January 7, 2019
Last year (2018), started very positively for the big-hitting Tomas Berdych. As ever, he was striking the ball cleanly, but for the first time in some years he seemed to have combined his power with a genuine belief in his ability to win matches. At the Australian Open, he advanced impressively through the first week, highlighted by his straight-sets demolition of Juan Martin del Potro for the loss of just eight games. Fabio Fognini, his fourth-round opponent, was also able to offer little resistance, capitulating 1-6, 4-6, 4-6.
That win set up a mouth-watering clash with defending champion and then world #2 Roger Federer for a spot in the semifinals. Berdych’s record against the great Swiss was not hugely encouraging, standing at 19-6 in Federer’s favor going into the match with Berdych’s most recent victory coming in 2013 in Dubai. But he had twice upset Federer in Grand Slam quarterfinals, at Wimbledon in 2010 en route to the final and in 2012 at the US Open.
And for much of the first set in Melbourne, he looked primed to add another. Using his big forehand to good effect, he was able to drive Federer back whilst also showing a commendable willingness to come to the net. His backhand was doing damage and even his eternally vulnerable second serve was holding up well. He broke first, late in the set, and had the chance to serve for it. Then, as it so often has for Berdych, it all unraveled.
Errors began to creep in. His brave second faults became double faults. What had been big forehand winners were instead wild misses and his knifed volleys dumped into the net instead of arrowing beyond Federer’s reach. One moment he had Federer on the ropes, the next the Swiss had put him in the dust. The match finished 7-6, 6-3, 6-4 and Federer went on to lift a record 20th Grand Slam title. For Berdych, the moment he broke serve in the first set to lead 5-3 proved to be the high watermark of his 2018 campaign.
Thereafter, injuries set in and early exits abounded. Indeed, he failed to win more than two matches in a row for the rest of his season, with his final match of the year a three-set defeat to Frenchman Julien Benneteau in the first round at Queen’s Club before back issues kept him away from competition at Wimbledon and through the North American summer swing and the Autumn hard court events in Asia and Europe.
As a result, he finished 2018 ranked 71st in the world, which marked the first time since 2003 that he had ended a season outside the top 50. A perhaps understandable decline for a player whose best years appear to be behind him, who hasn’t won a tour-level title since October 2016 in Shenzhen, and who hasn’t ranked inside the top 10 since early 2017. Certainly not a player likely to do damage at the first major of 2019 in a draw stocked with luminaries of the game and hungry young stars looking for their breakthrough.
Or is he? Berdych, arguably more than any other of his peers, is the forerunner of the athletically gifted, powerful big men that have been making their way towards the top of the game over the past seasons. The similarities between the Czech and players such as world #4 Alexander Zverev and Paris Masters champion Karen Khachanov are more than passing. Like them, his big frame belies impressive court coverage. Like them, he can do damage both with his forehand and backhand. Like them, his technique is rock solid.
Berdych had all the tools needed to compete with the very best and win big titles. Except one: the mental strength required to trust in his game and keep swinging even under the most severe pressure. Whilst Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic have always been mental fortresses, impervious to virtually all assault, throughout his career Berdych has cracked. Indeed, it is hard to think of any player on either tour who has more mental scars than Berdych.
But now, at long last, the pressure is surely off. Berdych’s time on tour is almost certainly drawing to a close and he has been replaced as one of the game’s perennial challengers. For the first time in over a decade, Berdych’s name is on almost no one’s lips ahead of the Australian Open. And that may well count in his favor. In Qatar in the first week of the season, Berdych looked looser and freer than he has in some time and played some excellent tennis as a result, reaching the final where he lost narrowly to Djokovic’s conqueror Roberto Bautista Agut.
For Berdych, no longer even in the last chance saloon, the time to remind the sport why he was so long one of its leading lights may be nigh. That does not mean that Berdych is finally going to win his first major title in Melbourne. This is shaping up to be one of the most competitive fields down under in recent memory, a welcome change from last year, which saw Federer steamroller through a weak draw to the title. But in and amongst those dangerous competitors will be Tomas Berdych, and expect him to give as good as he gets. Or, for once, maybe even better.