With most players, you can guess the effect of a shot by the sound of the ball coming off the strings. A full-blooded Marat Safin backhand was unmistakable by the loud ‘crack’ that reverberated around the arena as he struck it, as was a Fernando Gonzalez forehand. The acoustics were almost like a warning to the opponents that they were about to be in a world of pain, and more often than not the threat came to fruition.
But when Tomas Berdych hit the ball, the sound it made didn’t feel like a precursor to violence. Instead, it seemed to suggest he was merely going through the motions, trying to place the ball rather than really whack it.
The full effect of a Berdych shot could only be felt when the ball shot crossed the net and careened through the court like it had a mind of its own, picking up speed as it went along. It was a sight that never failed to amuse us; one moment it looked like Berdych was just hitting a regulation groundstroke, but the next moment the opponent was lunging for the ball in vain, beaten for sheer pace.
If there was ever a poster child for effortless power, it had to be Berdych.
That effortless power won’t be seen on the ATP tour any more, as the 34-year-old Czech has decided to hang up his boots. Announcing his retirement at a special ceremony organized at the O2 Arena in London last weekend, Berdych said that he was no longer in the physical state required to play at the top level.
“The feeling I went through in my last official match was one that told me I tried absolutely everything, but the end result is how it is. The level I was always chasing, the top results, being in the top positions [of the ATP Rankings]… My body doesn’t allow me to do so,” Berdych said.
It’s a sad way for one of the most consistent players of the last two decades to go out, but the departure had looked on the cards for a while. Berdych had been beset by injuries since about the middle of 2018, and in 2019 he played a grand total of nine tournaments. In his last match, a first-round loss to 394th-ranked Jenson Brooksby at the US Open, Berdych looked so badly out of shape that you wondered why he was playing the event at all.
It feels almost surreal to think that as recently as the 2018 Australian Open he was straight-setting Juan Martin del Potro and giving eventual champion Roger Federer an almighty scare in the quarter-finals. Since that mini-resurgence, just about everything that could have gone wrong for Berdych has gone wrong, and there really seemed no way back for him.
It was a fun ride while it lasted though; we were lucky enough to witness 17 years of Berdych casually swatting winners past the speediest of opponents and making tennis look like child’s play. The Czech was also part of some of the most memorable matches of our era, which is not a surprise given his consistent place in the top echelons of the sport — Berdych was a regular presence in the top 10 from 2010 to 2017.
2010 was undoubtedly his breakthrough year, where he reached his first-ever Slam semi-final (at Roland Garros) and his only Slam final (at Wimbledon). He famously defeated Federer and Novak Djokovic back-to-back in the quarters and semis respectively at SW19, before falling to the third member of the Big 3 – Rafael Nadal – in three hard-fought sets.
That tournament had seemed like the start of great things for Berdych, but unfortunately for him it was the stumble at the last hurdle that came to typify his career instead. Over the next decade the Big 3 (along with Andy Murray) would prove to be a scourge for him in a way that was both painful and inevitable, regularly depriving him of the chance at glory.
Berdych reached 10 Slam quarter-finals in his career, out of which he was defeated by Djokovic four times and by Nadal and Federer twice each (the remaining two losses came at the hands of Marin Cilic and Ernests Gulbis). Meanwhile, three of Berdych’s six semi-final losses were inflicted by Murray, and one by Federer (Stan Wawrinka and Robin Soderling were his other two conquerors). And of course, the one time Berdych reached the final, he was stopped by Nadal.
If that list of Berdych vanquishers sounds like a who’s-who of modern-day greats, it’s because it actually is. Apart from Gulbis, Soderling and Cilic, every other player who’s defeated Berdych at the business end of a Slam has been a multiple Slam champion himself. Berdych was stopped by the best of the best so often that by the end, his matches against them started feeling like foregone conclusions.
You probably know where this is heading: Berdych, like many other players of his ilk, was a victim of his circumstances. The common refrain is that if the Czech was born in any era other than the Golden Era of men’s tennis, he would have been a multiple Slam champion. He regularly finds a mention in the list of ‘best players to have never won a Slam’, and his head-to-head records bear that out: Berdych is the only player to suffer at least 20 defeats against each of the Big 3.
If you are deprived of Slam wins only because you keep running into the three greatest players of all time, does ‘unlucky’ even begin to describe your plight?
That said, Berdych did have his moments against those GOATs. His win over Federer at Wimbledon 2010 was a stop-the-presses event, as it marked the first time in eight long years that anyone had beaten the Swiss before the final. The manner of the victory was really striking too. I remember there was one reporter who was so flummoxed at how Berdych kept hitting casual shots that initially seemed to be going out but eventually landed in for winners, that he actually asked Federer whether he thought the Czech was helped by some spooky string technology. The reporter was basically suggesting Berdych’s win was a freak accident, and Federer thankfully refused to entertain the question.
Berdych on his part stressed after the match how much work he had put into it, despite how easy or fluke-like it looked. “It’s a good result, but good results come after really hard work and that’s what I’m doing,” he said. “It’s not happening as a miracle. You need to do something to bring those good results.”
A couple of years later Berdych produced another monumental upset, proving once and for all that his wins were anything but flukes. This one was at the US Open, breaking another Federer streak: it made Berdych the first man in nine years to defeat Federer before the semi-final of the event.
The win in New York was especially memorable as it came about despite Federer being in good form himself. Berdych was at the absolute peak of his powers that day, and he pushed the then-World No 1 all around the court in a commanding four-set win.
But Berdych’s finest performance ever came at the 2015 Australian Open, where he registered his only Slam win over Nadal. It wasn’t just any win though; that match showcased both Berdych’s imperious shot-making and his clutch play in full measure. He bagelled the Spaniard in a dominant second set, but also outlasted the greatest competitor the sport has ever known in a tense third set that tested the resolve of both men. Nadal has made innumerable comebacks from similar situations throughout his career, but on that day there was no denying Berdych.
“Game Set Tennis Career" pic.twitter.com/77kYPiZlW2
— Tomáš Berdych (@tomasberdych) November 16, 2019
The Czech had several other highlights in his career, most notably the back-to-back Davis Cup titles in 2012 and 2013. His 13 titles included a Masters 1000 trophy (2005 Paris Masters), and he qualified for the ATP season-ending championships six consecutive times from 2010 to 2015. He also pulled off something that absolutely nobody saw coming: a win over Federer as an unheralded teenager at the 2004 Athens Olympics. I’d be willing to wager that that result is still haunting the Swiss legend, as Athens was perhaps his best chance of winning the still-elusive singles gold medal.
Will Berdych be remembered for this impressive list of achievements, or will he be remembered for his repeated failures against the Big 4? His near-perfect technique and smooth ball-striking occasionally gave us the feeling that he could maybe have done a little better in those high-stakes matches. And he certainly did have a tendency to choke on the big stage at times, especially when made to hit a few extra shots.
But then you look at how players with supposedly higher mental strength have fared in those situations – Berdych’s similarly Slam-less peers Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and David Ferrer immediately come to mind – and you realize the results would likely have been the same even if Berdych had never suffered stage fright.
Stage fright or not though, Berdych never backed down from a battle – even if it meant antagonizing the ruling class. That street-fighter quality separated him from, say, the ever-polite David Ferrer, but it also muddled his identity a tad. Berdych didn’t behave meekly when pitted against the Big 4, and yet he didn’t truly threaten them on a consistent basis either. He was a bit of a neither-here-nor-there player, which made him an easy target for both the player entourages and the media.
Murray’s wife Kim Sears once called Berdych a “Czech flash fuck” as things got heated between him and her husband on the court. On another occasion, a reporter asked Berdych how he was preparing for the quarter-final despite the fact that he had lost in the fourth round. “Is he trying to make fun of me?” a clearly upset Berdych asked the media coordinator, and it was hard not to feel pity for the man.
As Berdych bids goodbye to the sport, that tinge of pity has resurfaced in the minds of many. Here was a player who had pretty much everything – the easy power on the groundstrokes, the big serve, the strong netplay, the surprisingly good (for a player as tall as 6’5”) court coverage – and yet he still couldn’t reach the pinnacle of the sport. But perhaps a fairer way of looking back at Berdych’s career is by remembering how often he made those parts come together on the court, despite the knowledge that there would inevitably be heartbreak at the final hurdle.
Berdych may not have won a Slam but he did keep plugging away to win 13 titles, in the process giving us a series of spectacular performances that stood out even in the Golden Era of men’s tennis. His smooth shot-making may not have raised the decibel levels on the court, but that’s probably why we’ll remember it even more fondly.
To watch Tomas Berdych in full flow was to know what effortless power truly meant. And it was a sight as unforgettable as any.
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Updated Date: Nov 19, 2019 09:48:28 IST