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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.

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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.


We return tomorrow with a quarter-by-quarter preview of the WTA Tokyo event, which promises to intrigue from the very first ball struck.  On Sunday or Monday, we will release a shorter post on the key storylines that unfolded in Seoul, Tashkent, Metz, and Bucharest.


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For a second straight day, a first-time Slam finalist targets perhaps the most coveted prize in the sport; can Tomas Berdych succeed where Vera Zvonareva failed?  Confronted with a similar conundrum of tackling the world #1 (although not the top seed in his case), the rising Czech shares the Russian’s reputation as a former mental midget who recently has surmounted emotional foibles to unlock previously unexploited potential.  In a more relevant sense, though, Berdych differs dramatically from the 2010 ladies’ runner-up, whose serving and shot-making abilities fell far short of those displayed by her opponent.  Superior to Nadal in serving and at least equal in shot-making, the nemesis of Federer and Djokovic possesses a game much more aligned with grass-court tennis than Zvonareva’s style.   Also unlike his Russian counterpart, the Czech has resoundingly proclaimed his right to play for the title by defeating two of the top three players in the world here, including the six-time champion.  Nevertheless, he has lost his last six meetings and last fourteen sets against the Spaniard, who ousted him from the All England Club three years ago.  The three wins that Berdych did score over Nadal occurred on hard courts in 2005 and 2006, when Rafa remained well below his scintillating best on what is still his least comfortable surface.

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But the towering Czech whom the 2008 champion will face on Sunday has evolved into a far more complete and confident player since his dazzling upset over Federer in Miami, during which he saved a match point.  As the Swiss star learned once again this week, Berdych now reacts to tense situations with a patience and poise that have dramatically reduced the unforced errors formerly at the core of his underachievement.  In the excruciatingly elongated second-set tiebreak against Djokovic, he demonstrated his newfound fortitude by shrugging off four squandered set points and calmly held his nerve until the Serb flinched.  Although he does continue to donate a few more double faults than he should, the Czech rarely concedes them at potentially back-breaking moments.  Striking high balls and low balls with equal conviction, he also has devoted considerable effort to improving his mobility as well as his court positioning.  Berdych has developed an acute instinct for when to approach the net (a crucial dimension of grass-court tennis) in addition to crisper execution when he arrives in the forecourt; he easily discerns when an opponent will hit a floating, off-balance reply and when he must await a more inviting opportunity.  On the other hand, he doesn’t match Nadal’s intensity on every point, often relaxing after having established substantial leads and allowing his opponents to creep back into such situations with careless shot selection or execution.  Whereas the less urgent Federer and Djokovic allowed him to escape these lapses, it’s unlikely that the perennially focused Rafa will prove so generous.  Instead of constantly hitting to the open court, Berdych should attempt to hit behind Nadal and force him to reverse direction occasionally.  Despite the world #1’s superlative movement, such a ploy would prevent him from settling into rallies as well as testing those still-dubious knees.  Yet the Czech must be prepared to hit one or two additional shots to finish rallies, a skill largely untested by his two marquee victims; brilliant at retrieving overheads, Nadal possesses greater speed and superior eye-hand coordination to anyone in the top 10.  Rather than allowing Rafa to probe the angles of the court, Berdych must pull the trigger early in the rally, pin the Spaniard behind the baseline, and smother him with a steady diet of flat, penetrating bombs, eschewing the slices to which he sporadically resorted in the semifinal.  This match must become a staccato, arhythmic exercise in first-strike tennis in order for him to prevail, so his mighty first serve might well prove the decisive factor in the outcome, whether for better or for worse.  When that shot is flowing as smoothly as it has for most of this fortnight, Berdych can rest comfortably in a citadel of routine service games while occasionally sallying forth when his opponents waver on their own serve.

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Entering this clash with equal confidence, Nadal should have gained considerable momentum from winning six consecutive sets against Soderling and Murray, responsible for three of his last four Slam defeats.  It’s probable that the match will feature at least one tiebreak, and the world #1 has won four of the six tiebreaks that he has contested with Berdych.  In order to discomfit the Czech when he strides to the service notch, Nadal must position himself aggressively on second-serve returns; he could light a flicker of doubt in his adversary’s mind that might impel him to seek greater consistency on the first serve and consequently diminish its sting.  As semifinal spectators will have observed, Berdych’s backhand falters more often than his forehand under pressure, so the former champion will hope to target that wing on crucial points.  A curious product of the Spaniard’s left-handedness, cross-court rallies will match each player’s strength (their forehands) to their opponent’s weakness (their backhands), so deuce-court-to-deuce-court exchanges favor Berdych while ad-court-to-ad-court exchanges benefit Nadal.  Just as when facing Soderling here and at Roland Garros, Rafa will seek to stretch the Czech wide of the sidelines in order to tempt him into low-percentage attempts to win points with one swing.  Unlike Soderling, however, Berdych ambitiously redirects the ball with regularity and remarkable accuracy, forcing his opponents to prepare for down-the-line missiles into the corners.  When we previewed the quarterfinals and semis, we advised both Federer and Djokovic to pull the Czech forward into the forecourt in uncomfortable situations, but they followed this recommendations far less often than we would have hoped.  Unleashing several sparkling passing shots in his own semifinal, Nadal will want to invite Berdych forward with dipping backhand slices and the occasional drop shot.  In neutral rallies, though, he must refrain from topspin-heavy shots that bounce halfway between the service line and the baseline, allowing Tomas to hit down on his groundstrokes as he prefers whenever possible.  Above all, Nadal can’t afford to settle into the passive, retrieving mentality that doomed Djokovic against Berdych, for no longer can he wait for the Czech to implode in a convenient shower of unforced errors.  The Spaniard must seize control of the rallies when the opportunity arises, or he will find himself the victim of a ruthless target practice session.  Here, his sublime talent for fluidly transitioning from defense to offense will prove pivotal.

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Armed with the immense serve and flat, bone-crushing groundstrokes of a Soderling, Del Potro, or Gulbis, Berdych closely adheres to the profile of those players who most trouble Nadal, although he may yet lack the swaggering fearlessness with which to approach this challenge.  Nevertheless, Rafa should draw upon his vastly deeper experience in such pressure-laden situations to compensate for his opponent’s electrifying offense.  In his last four appearances at Wimbledon, he has reached the final on every occasion and climbed to a perceptibly higher level of tennis each year.  While it would be virtually impossible to surpass the vertiginous heights that he reached in his epic 2008 triumph, we expect that Berdych’s ferocious offense will bring out the best in Nadal’s unrivaled counterpunching skills.  After four gritty (albeit grassy) sets, Rafa should reclaim the throne that he poignantly abdicated a year ago.

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