Report from London: What's next for Berdych, Tsonga?

Friday, November 09, 2012 /by

LONDON—Let’s be honest: This tournament hasn’t really caught fire yet. We’re still waiting for a real thriller, a competitive heavyweight bout. It’s been entertaining enough, but there have been a few matches where you’re really aware of the sound of the ventilation system, and that’s never a good sign.

Still, that’s what happens when half the field is conspicuously better than the other half. Roger Federer has sailed through Group B so far, and although technically everything was still to play for in Group A today, in the end, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray came through in straights—both, as it turned out, needing to win just one set.

So Djokovic and Murray move into the semi-finals, as we could have—and indeed did—predict before the tournament began. But what of their opponents, Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who once again found themselves relegated to the second tier despite some inspired play? We’ve grown inured to any expectation of radical change to the ATP pecking order, since the ‘Big Four’ have so firmly ensconced themselves at the top of the game, on top, in fact, of a metaphorical heap of money, points, trophies and glory.

Still, when we talk about those who can at least mildly perturb if not outright upset the apple-cart, the names of Berdych and Tsonga tend to be mentioned. For good reason: There’s a certain pitch at which they are both capable of playing when even the very best players in the world can do nothing but weather the storm and hope it passes. And pass it invariably does, sometimes lasting long enough to beat one of the top players but not to beat two or three, which in the current tennis climate is what the biggest titles take to win. Maybe the format of this particular tournament doesn’t help: You might know on a cognitive level how round-robin play works, but it still feels a less rational one, like the tournament’s got everybody running round in circles for the best part of a week, before we get to the meat of things.  

Still, it’s clear that something is needed if Berdych and/or Tsonga are to become more than what they are: Gatekeepers for the Big Four, scoring the occasional high-profile win over them but more often than not beating back everybody below them. Tsonga has hired Roger Rasheed to put an end to a long, coach-less period which initially seemed to release him, but in the end resulted in him becoming more erratic, so it’s to that relationship we will look in 2013. (I liked Rasheed’s tweet earlier, referring to tonight as ‘another night to go to school with Jo.’)

What’s next for Berdych, though? Well, we know: He’s bound for Prague to attempt to the thankless task of leading his team against Spain in the Davis Cup final, which is sure to leave him looking even glummer than he was in his post-match press conference tonight. Amid the dejection, though, he struck one defiant note: Asked to evaluate his year, the state of his career, he smiled and said, “I would be very short. I hope that the best moment is still to come.”

All well and good, but where is that ‘best moment’ to come from? Watching Berdych against Djokovic today, it struck me anew how crazy—how actually, factually, foaming-at-the-mouth insane—it is, what you have to do to win points against the very best when they’re playing anything up to their potential (and they have so very few lapses). As Berdych perked up in the second set, broke back and began to actually win enough points to make it competitive, he consistently had to hit six, seven, eight huge shots —inches from the lines—without missing, and even then winning the point was far from guaranteed. Djokovic finished the match with more than twice the number of forehand winners than Berdych, not just because Berdych’s forehand was misfiring for the majority of the match, but because it was so much easier for the Serb to maneuver his opponent out of position and open up the court for a winner than vice versa.

Berdych is not going to be able to develop the elastic, eye-watering movement of Djokovic, true, but I do feel he’s made definite strides towards developing a more blended, patient game which perhaps accounts for his very consistent season, winning more matches (60) in a year than ever before. He could improve his second serve and, perhaps more crucially, develop a more reliably aggressive second-serve return with which to set up an attack while being reasonably sure of getting it into the court.

But he didn’t lose the match today for any of those reasons (which may not really exist outside of my unsophisticated perception). He lost because at the crucial moment, he couldn’t make the necessary shot. With Djokovic serving to stay in the second set at 5-6 and all the momentum with the Czech, Berdych hit a gorgeous, dead-eye backhand passing shot, then netted two makeable forehands to surrender that advantage. Racing to a 3-0 lead in the tie-break and eventual set points, the third of which was on his own serve, a strong return from Djokovic elicited an error; no blame there, but at 6-6, Berdych put a forehand wide. Then, staring down the barrel of Djokovic’s match point, he could not make the forehand return as his opponent had done so successfully when he was behind.

I hate the expression ‘choking’; I don’t want to use it, ever. But Berdych does have a record of being—what’s a diplomatic way to put it?—not as solid under pressure as he should be. And that’s fine; he’s one of the very best of the world at what he does, and it looks like he can go on playing at this level for a good few years yet, providing the occasional thriller, the occasional shock defeat, but by and large indisputably one of the very best of the rest. It just feels like, from the perspective of someone who’s always enjoyed watching his tennis, that at 27 he’s increasingly losing his capacity to surprise. And when you’re waiting for things to catch fire, that’s a shame.

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