The Trouble with Tomas Berdych

Firstly, an admission – I had planned to write this fairly negative article about Tomas Berdych, regardless of the outcome of his first round match at the US Open today. That he beat David Goffin fairly straightforwardly (7-5 6-3 6-3), is beside the more important point: that is, given Berdych’s prototypical physical stature and the attacking weaponry at his disposal, The Berd should be The Word.

Instead, Berdych is the most anonymous member of the world’s top 10. Consider it: the Big Three speak for themselves; as does Andy Murray, if to a slightly lesser extent. Based on pure ability, Juan Martin Del Potro is perhaps the nearest to crashing the Federer/Nadal/Djokovic closed shop. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga brings verve and boundless exuberance to the party. David Ferrer; a remarkable ability to run forever, in addition to some underratedly weighty groundstrokes. John Isner has a massive serve, huge heart and a penchant for epic matches.

Tomas Berdych? Well, nothing really – other than an overwhelming sense that the Czech just doesn’t really want it enough. His genuinely powerful groundstrokes, huge wingspan and colossal serve should, at very least, have made him a poor man’s Ivan Lendl (a compliment). Unfortunately, Berdych is apparently contented with his position near, but not at, the pinaccle of the game.  Lacking in heart, somewhat strategically naïve and mentally frail – these are deficiencies that even an abundance of talent cannot overcome.

For, despite these criticisms, Berdych undoubtedly has great ability – you don’t reach a Grand Slam final as he did at Wimbledon in 2010 without at least a modicum of said asset. However, the giant Czech seems curiously loath to display this virtue on the biggest stages. Take this year’s top level defeats: an encouraging start before tame submission to Rafa Nadal at the Australian Open. A similar, resigned loss to Del Potro at the French Open. And more recently, an incomprehensible annihilation by Ernests Gulbis at Wimbledon.

However, the nadir was probably a woeful straight sets loss at the Olympics to Steve Darcis. Yes, Steve Darcis. (World Number 74, since you didn’t ask). And while Berdych could possibly be excused that debacle on the grounds that ‘it was only the Olympics’; remember that the Olympic tennis tournament and a victory over Roger Federer created Berdych’s reputation in 2004, a reputation that he arguably existed upon for the next six years.

Many of Berdych’s best results have taken place on clay, a strange scenario given the apparent suitability of his game to faster, harder courts. While this may be due to the dubious ‘Martin Verkerk principle’: the clay giving Berdych more time to line up his shots than on other, quicker surfaces – it is an invalid excuse for a player possessing such serious firepower on both forehand and backhand, and with legitimate aspirations of winning Grand Slam titles. In fact, Berdych’s game – so similar in many aspects to Del Potro’s – should be ideally suited to the US Open; instead, he has never progressed beyond the 4th round. A dismal record for a player with his unquestionable ability.

While a permanent fixture in the top 10, Berdych is not seriously a threat to win any Grand Slam tournament in this era; indeed, he currently seems unable to muster the heart to sustain even a credible pretence at challenging in the Majors. While this may yet be the fortnight that his stagnating career is resurrected; Tomas Berdych appears disappointingly – given his aforementioned natural ability – satisfied with his lot.

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