Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Berdych Bandwagon

Is the 24-year-old Czech really turning the corner?

If tennis players were stocks, savvy investors would more than likely be burning the midnight oil crunching the numbers on the 6'5" 200 lb. power puncher from Valasske Mezerici, Czech Republic, known to tennis fans as "The Berdman."

After his first masters 1000 final appearance since 2005, they must be wondering, is it time to buy or sell Berdych stock?

Many have been thoroughly impressed (and rightfully so) by Berdych's play of late - he reached the quarterfinals of Indian Wells before bowing out to Rafael Nadal, then reached the finals of the Sony Ericsson Open before losing to Andy Roddick - but others aren't convinced that this isn't an aberration.

Berdych, in spite of being endowed by the gods of tennis with an imposing physique, superior athleticism, and in-your-face strokes to match, has always been considered to be lacking the mental fortitude necessary to become a mainstay in the upper echelons of the game. He entered the season with a career record of 14-41 against the top 10, but half of those wins came in 2005 and 2006 - years when Berdych was bursting onto the scene like a wildly hyped IPO.

Then came the sell off. While Berdych's imposing game still lured the occasional investor to buy his stock, his reputation as an underachiever started to spread. He didn't make another appearance in a Masters final, and had virtually no success against top 10 players for several years.

It'd be crazy to write Berdych off at the tender age of 24, because he's clearly - in spite of his failure to reach the potential we've all assigned to him - one of the ATP's more talented players. He's been one of the top 30 players in the world since 2005, after all. But there is something about Berdych that has made people cringe over the years. How can he tote that massive artillery around and yet still seem to fire so many blanks in big matches?

As is so often the case, there is the annoying little issue of the expectations for the player taking on a life of their own. Tennis pundits tend to get carried away with the idea of how good a player could become if only he used every square inch of his untapped potential. But in reality, there are very few players who possess the intellectual and emotional tools that allows them to maximize their physical gifts. Berdych, as far as we know, isn't one of them.

So then, how can we explain his stellar play of late? Is Berdych finally coming of age, or is he merely benefiting from the absence of so many ATP stalwarts (Davydenko and Del Potro are out, Federer, Murray, and Djokovic are out of sorts)?

I must admit that the one time that I was fortunate enough to watch him play in person this spring - a full-on assault of Serb Viktor Troicki that had me wondering how he hasn't won multiple Masters shields - I was pretty blown away. The match was evidence of the sheer domination that Berdych is capable of. It was complete and utter shock and awe, and while watching the match I found myself wondering how it is that Berdych ever loses.

But he does lose, and against the better players he does it quite often. Who can forget Berdych's 4th round match at the 2009 Australian Open, where he practically hammered Roger Federer into the plexicushion for two sets, then lost his mojo and spiralled helplessly out of control as Federer coasted to victory.

As inexplicable as that turnaround was, it revealed to us something about Berdych - he's not one of those big time gut-it-out heart and soul type guys who is going to deliver the goods come crunch time. There are plenty of players on the ATP tour that we can say the same thing about, but Berdych is perhaps the most talented of all of them.

As we sit back and take stock of Berdych's game in the early phases of 2010, it is tempting to ask the question: Has Berdych found that missing Je ne sais quoi? Is he, at 24, finally realizing that he is among the world's elite and all he has to do is step up his determination to prove it?

His strong play in the last two Masters tournaments are evidence of a turn around in the young phenoms game. It's been impressive to watch, and Berdych himself has looked at ease and confident on the court.

While two tournaments (and zero titles) is not enough to make us forget that Berdych still has a long way to go to become a legitimate Grand-Slam threat, it is, at least for the time being, enough to make us believe that he still may become what we think he can be.

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