NEW YORK—It had been 16 years since I first saw Tomas Berdych on Court 13 at the US Open. That was 2003, and he was a long-haired 17-year-old making his Grand Slam debut. He entered the main draw as a lucky loser, and he exited it quickly, to Juan Ignacio Chela in the second round. But the already-towering teen was around long enough to make me think, for a few minutes at least, that he was going to be the future of men’s tennis.
At a time when the game was growing taller by the day, Berdych was the smoothest-hitting 6’5’’ player I’d ever seen. He dropped down and drove through both his ground strokes, and generated quiet, easy, effortless power. I’ll never forget the crack-of-a-gunshot sound that his flat first serve made. In his beautifully brute force, it seemed as if 21st-century tennis had arrived. When Berdych upset Roger Federer at the Athens Olympics the following summer, it seemed that he had arrived as well.
As we know now, the rest was not quite history.
Sixteen years and twice as many hairstyles later, a 33-year-old Berdych was back on Court 13 at 11:00 on Monday morning. Much looked the same, from his smooth strokes to his sartorial boldness—today he wore kit by Hydrogen that featured stars on his shirt and vertical stripes on his pants. Berdych is hardly a beloved figure in New York, but he did reach the semifinals here in 2012, and his name inspired a spirited “Woooo!” from the bleachers. Anyone following his season so far must have known that he’ll take whatever love he can get.
“It’s been a very tough time for me,” Berdych told ATPTour.com last week in Winston-Salem. “I’ve been really up and down. Because of the love of the sport, I was giving myself one more try to come back, give myself a good shot to prepare, play some matches [in Winston-Salem] and the US Open and see what happens.”
What may happen sooner than later is that Berdych will announce his retirement. He contemplated it last season, but a run to the final of the first event of 2019, in Doha, gave him new hope. If Federer, who is four years older than Berdych, and Nadal, who is a few months older, can thrive in their mid-30s, why not him? He has been their peer for nearly two decades. But then, in Miami, a back injury sent Berdych reeling again. He missed Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and most of the summer hard-court season. Like so many other tennis players, though, that one good run of form, in Doha, continued to give him hope.
“If I prepared like I did before this season, not had good results, and then had the injuries…I probably would be thinking very differently. I probably wouldn’t be standing here right now,” he said. “I know I can still play some good tennis when I’m fit and healthy.”
Berdych seemed to have found a comfortable spot in the draw. On Monday he faced Jenson Brooksby, a California kid who was all of three years old when Berdych made his debut here. Brooksby, the only American man to qualify for the Open, was ranked outside the Top 300, and despite winning the USTA Nationals at Kalamazoo last year, he committed to play at Baylor rather than turn pro.
Will that decision change after today? It was Brooksby, rather than Berdych, who had the crowd behind him. It was Brooksby who cruised through the first set with ease and confidence. And it was Brooksby who was the fitter and more confident player down the stretch. It was Brooksby who finished with his first Grand Slam win, 6-1, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4.
Berdych’s strokes were still smooth, but the easy power had gone out of them. He double-faulted twice in the opening game, and was down 0-4 in a matter of minutes. After briefly wresting back control of the rallies in the second set, Berdych looked increasingly labored and lumbering in the third and fourth. Brooksby’s 45th and final winner had the feel of one man putting the other out of his misery.
Is this the end of the line for Berdych at the US Open? Does he have another comeback in him? If not, he’ll go down as one of the best players never to win a major, and perhaps the most unfortunate casualty of the Big 4 era. He was one of the few men to reach the semis or better at all four majors; he led the Czech Republic to two Davis Cup titles; he has won 13 titles and 640 matches—21st on the all-time list, and ahead of a dozen Hall-of-Famers. More than most players, though, he’ll be remembered for what he didn’t do, and who he couldn’t beat.
Berdych himself doesn’t seem to have any lasting regrets; he’s taking whatever he can from his last few laps around the circuit.
“If this was happening earlier in my career, it would be very frustrating,” he told the tour’s website. “It’s easier to deal with when you have all the experience. I’m just enjoying new situations that I’ve never had in my career, trying to find a way through it and take it as a challenge.”
Berdych couldn’t find that way today. Shaking hands with Brooksby, he patted the younger man on the shoulders a few times; it looked like one player with everything behind him wishing the best for a player with everything in front of him. But even on this afternoon, there were a few flashes that reminded me of Berdych’s better days, points where he eased around for a forehand and lasered the ball into the corner for a winner that was as casual in its creation as it was explosive in its end result. His timing will be missed.
Back in 2003, I was wrong about Berdych being the future of the men’s game. But I wasn’t wrong about how amazingly good he was at tennis. In this outsized era, you could be one without being the other. Jenson Brooksby would probably be more than happy to have half the career that Tomas Berdych has.
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