As far as their places in the game go, Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga have a lot of similarities. They’re both 28, they’ve both reached one major final, and they’ve both spent the last few years trying, and not succeeding, to break the Big 4’s stranglehold on the game. But as players go, they couldn’t be more different. Berdych’s game is powerful but overly rigid; he has everything but versatility. Tsonga’s game is also powerful, but it’s too reliant on the inspiration of the moment; he has everything but discipline.
Over the years, their fortunes have waxed and waned; each has surged in the rankings and fallen back, each has seemed ready to break through and failed to do it. At the moment, as we could see from this match, Berdych is the man on the rise, while Tsonga is spinning his wheels. The Czech, who reached the semifinals at the Australian Open and won a tournament two weeks ago in Rotterdam, is No. 6 in the rankings and poised to move to No. 5, ahead of Juan Martin del Potro. The Frenchman, who had to retire at Wimbledon and miss the U.S. Open last year with an injury, is at No. 10 and hasn’t won a title in more than a year.
On Thursday those trends played out in Dubai, where Berdych beat Tsonga 6-4, 6-3 to advance to the semifinals. From the first game, Berdych was on top of the baseline, while Tsonga was well behind it. Tsonga struggled with his serve, making just 48 percent of first balls and double-faulting at two crucial moments—4-5, 0-30 in the first set, and 3-4, break point in the second set. Jo did work hard to create some momentum in the second, and he threatened to turn the tide on Berdych’s serve on a number of occasions. But he could never connect on the key shot. With a break point at 2-2, Tsonga leaped to try a huge forehand, and sent it 15 feet long. He finished 0 for 5 on break points.
Berdych wasn’t perfect, either. Like Tsonga, he committed more errors than he hit winners. And he had his own nervy moments, squandering five of the seven break points he earned. But he avoided any disastrous mistakes on his serve, and pressured Tsonga to come up with great shots all evening. The only off-moment of Berdych's match came at the very beginning, when he summoned the trainer for what turned out to be a case of...sunburn. If you can’t have cramps treated on court, can you really expect to have your peeling skin looked after?
Next up for Berdych is a semifinal date with Philipp Kohlschreiber. How bright—I won’t say sunny—is Berdych's future? How high can the Berd fly? We’ll start to find out over the next couple of days in Dubai.