Responding to a pre-US Open request, we discuss this year’s surprise sensation in the ATP. Will the Czech bounce, or is he here to stay? Seven topics concerning the world #7 are explored below…
1) What was the turning point?
Having trudged through years of underachievement, Berdych looked ready to crumble once more when he handed Federer a match point in Miami by missing a routine forehand. After a wry smile, however, Tomas stung a second-serve return into his opponent’s backhand corner, boldly ventured into the forecourt, and lashed a vicious forehand past the scrambling Swiss. Perhaps startled by such unexpected resistance, Federer retreated into passivity during the next two rallies, while Berdych refused to relinquish the initiative. Invigorated by this miracle in Miami, the Czech extended his momentum with inspired performances against Verdasco and Soderling there. When the tour shifted to European clay, he ambushed Murray in Roland Garros before severely challenging Soderling in a five-set semifinal. Perhaps most impressive, however, was his ability to repeat his triumph over Federer at Wimbledon, where he defied the magnitude of the occasion with a dispassionate but relentless determination. These two matches against the Swiss #1 thus bookended Berdych’s mid-career metamorphosis.
2) Will he regress?
At the midpoint of 2010, Berdych loomed large among the leading candidates for the US Open title. On the slick hard courts that he should relish, though, the Czech bounced ignominiously in a first-round loss to the charismatic Llodra. Almost as concerning was his loss to Federer at the Rogers Cup, during which he served for the match and stood two points from victory on five different occasions. In stark contrast to the Miami miracle, Berdych allowed the Swiss legend to control most critical rallies, while his shot selection grew increasingly tentative. Dropping vital Davis Cup rubbers to Tipsarevic and Djokovic last weekend, Tomas again revealed mental frailty under pressure by donating untimely miscues and failing to exploit numerous opportunities. Nevertheless, the surge from Miami through Wimbledon occurred on three different surfaces against a variety of opponents, so it seems unlikely to become an anomaly. More probable is the inference that Berdych merely needs a few months to adjust to the rarefied atmosphere in which he now finds himself.
3) Is he a better best-of-three or best-of-five player?
Visibly weary towards the end of his five-set Roland Garros semifinal, Berdych won only one five-setter during his two Slam breakthroughs this summer. Efficiently dispatching his first five Roland Garros adversaries in straight sets, he faltered temporarily against the unimposing duo of Denis Istomin and Daniel Brands at Wimbledon. Not always the most focused competitor, the Czech can escape attention lapses more readily in a five-setter than a three-setter. Yet the elevated focus demanded by the compressed format may spur him to perform at a higher level rather than lackadaisically allowing an overmatched opponent to outstay his welcome. On the other hand, Berdych sometimes starts sluggishly before finding his range, and the best-of-five structure offers him more time to recover from such situations. If he grows accustomed to deep Slam runs, his mental and physical endurance probably will rise, so the issue of his intermittent focus may eventually fade from relevance.
4) Is he an all-surface threat?
Among the most impressive features of the Czech’s spring surge was his ability to translate his momentum from hard courts to clay to grass, rare among the sport’s elite. At Roland Garros, the Czech profits from the additional time to plant his feet before unleashing his groundstrokes, which possess more than sufficient sting to penetrate even the slowest surface. Although one might expect Wimbledon to expose his inconsistency at the net, the grass has grown steadily slower and rewarded aggressive baseliners as much as net-rushers. Meanwhile, the low bounce there hampers a player of his height as much as the high bounce at the French Open assists him. But the serve remains vital and points remain short at the All England Club, two characteristics that favored Berdych during his stirring run to the final. But the Czech’s early loss at the US Open especially puzzles because hard courts should continue to prove his friendliest setting. Having honed a largely programmatic style, he will relish the regular bounces and controlled conditions of the tour’s dominant surface, which provide a predictability distinct from the vagaries of clay and grass.5) How does he match up to the top players?
Equipped to trade baseline blows with anyone, Berdych should regularly trouble fellow juggernauts Soderling and Del Potro, who share his principal strengths and limitations. Illustrated by his three matches with Federer this summer, the aging Swiss struggles to cope with the Czech’s massive first-strike power on a day when he falls short of his majestic best; those days will only become more frequent as Federer’s career wanes (together with his consistency). Despite a resounding victory over Djokovic at Wimbledon, Berdych matches up less effectively with the Serb, who possesses a less reliable serve but a superior backhand and more fluid movement. Similar issues should arise against Murray, although the Scot’s tendency towards passivity will provide Tomas with more opportunities to command points from the baseline. Like most of his contemporaries, Berdych faces his sternest test against the world #1. Armed with far greater versatility, Nadal not only outwitted but often outslugged the Czech in their one-sided Wimbledon final, and the Spaniard’s enhanced serve has negated the sole advantage that Berdych formerly held over him. In order to take another step forward, Berdych literally should take a few steps forward and refine his net skills, thus separating himself from his baseline-bound peers.
6) How long can he contend?
Boyish in appearance and manner, Berdych has accumulated more years on the ATP than one might suppose. Like his stylistic cousin Soderling, he fulfilled his potential later than most of his colleagues and thus faces a more constricted time window in which to achieve his goals. That knowledge should infuse him with a sense of urgency during the next few years. On the other hand, the Czech hasn’t accumulated any significant injuries, and a leg issue early in the clay season failed to forestall his Roland Garros heroics. Relying on an explosive serve and forehand, he should enjoy greater durability than the ATP’s movement-based counterpunchers. The enigmatic Berdych has seemed to struggle with motivation periodically, however, so his results may tumble dramatically once his career starts to fade, and success requires more intense effort. Still less confident than the top five, the world #7 must construct a firmer barrier to psychologically insulate himself from adversity. To be sure, the victories over Federer augured well in this regard, but the late summer undercut that evidence. What will the fall portend?
7) What should he seek to accomplish in 2011?
Two more Slam semifinals would convincingly establish the Czech among the ATP elite, as would a Masters 1000 title or a pair of finals. While winning a major certainly would dazzle, Berdych should strive to enhance his consistency at Slams and Masters 1000 tournaments. In addition to improving his ranking, steadier results would enable him to shed his reputation for streakiness, upon which opponents have often relied. Since he can threaten anyone except (arguably) Nadal, Berdych doesn’t depend upon the whims of a draw. In fact, a more arduous draw can benefit him by preventing him from settling into complacency, a standard ingredient in upset recipes. The clearest measure of Berdych’s maturation into a consistent contender will emerge not just from his ability to sporadically ambush Federer or Djokovic but also from his ability to regularly withstand Llodra, Tipsarevic, Baghdatis, and similarly opportunistic challengers.