Inspiring A New Generation
by James Buddell
Tomas Berdych has amassed a 21-7 overall Davis Cup record since making his debut for the Czech Republic in September 2003.
Tomas Berdych faces the tricky task of helping Czech Republic end Spain's 19-tie unbeaten record on clay in this week's Davis Cup by BNP Paribas Final at the Palau Sant Jordi in Barcelona.
Fed on tales of how Ivan Lendl, Tomas Smid, Pavel Slozil and the veteran Jan Kodes led the then named Czechoslovakia to a 4-1 victory over Italy at the Sportovní hala in Prague for the 1980 Davis Cup title, Tomas Berdych, aided by team mates Radek Stepanek, Jan Hajek and Lukas Dlouhy, is determined to become a modern day tennis hero and inspire a new generation of Czech players to the sport.
"The Davis Cup has always been a very emotional experience for me.""I remember when the ice hockey players won the 1998 Winter Olympics gold medal [1-0 over Russia] in Nagano, Japan," said Berdych. "Over 100,000 people turned up at the Old Town Square in Prague. Ever since then Radek and I have been pushing ourselves to do a 'Nagano'."
Having beaten France, Argentina and Croatia in the World Group en route to this year's final, arguably the Czech Republic's greatest test awaits them. Unbeaten in 17 home ties, Spain's armada of clay-court talents including Rafael Nadal, Fernando Verdasco, David Ferrer and Feliciano Lopez will be attempting to become the first nation since Sweden in 1998 to retain Dwight Davis' silver-gilt trophy.
"The Davis Cup has always been a very emotional experience for me," said World No. 20 Berdych, who first represented the Czech Republic at Thailand two days after his 18th birthday in September 2003. "I remember playing Davis Cup in the Euro/African Zone II against Morocco three years ago and to have played a World Group semi-final and now be challenging for the famous trophy is unbelievable and a total contrast."
Berdych believes the Czech Republic's inspiration for its run to this year's final can be traced back to September 2007. "We survived in the [World Group] play-off tie against Switzerland, with Roger Federer," admitted Berdych. "With the tie level at 1-1, Radek and I were match point down in the doubles. I was serving a second serve to Roger and fortunately turned it around and we won in five sets [3-6, 5-7, 7-6(7), 6-4, 6-4]. That was the key that has helped Czech Republic reach the final this year. It gave everyone confidence.
"When we get together for Davis Cup, we are like a family spending all day together.""We realised that we were not individuals in the team. Since that win we have not won and lost individually, but have won three points and moved forward to the next tie and challenge.
"When we get together for Davis Cup, we are like a family spending all day together. We meet early each morning and have fun during the week. A good atmosphere is very important."
Preparation and training for the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas Final have gone to plan, with the members of the Czech Republic team arriving in Barcelona on Saturday. Czech captain and former ATP pro Jaroslav Navratil, Berdych and hitting partner Dusan Lojda even found the time to watch the 'El Clásico', between rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid, at the Nou Camp on Sunday, while Stepanek has been training at his base in Bradenton, Florida.
"Radek is a funny guy, he makes a lot of jokes and he is a really good team player. Lukas is the same. Radek is a tremendous fighter on the court, as evidenced against Ivo Karlovic in a six-hour match [against Croatia in the semi-finals]. It was extremely tough for him, more mentally than physically. If someone hits 50-60 plus aces and forty winners it is tough to survive. He enjoys being in a team and helping the team do well."
Dlouhy, who lifted the Roland Garros and US Open doubles title with Leander Paes this year, is set to be overlooked for the doubles spot in the final. Dlouhy has not represented Czech Republic in a live rubber for almost two years and Berdych believes it won't affect his team mate.
"Lukas is portrayed in the Czech newspapers as a player who doesn't like the fact that as a Grand Slam champion he cannot make the team in the doubles. But Radek and I have played well, winning all seven doubles rubbers, so it is tough. It's great that we have a top doubles player in reserve."
Berdych and 31-year-old Stepanek have been in sparkling form for the Czech Republic this year, both compiling 6-1 records overall in the international men's team competition. As a doubles team, they remain unbeaten (5-0). "It is tough to say if there is a key to our success this year," confessed Berdych. "We have been lucky with team selection to pick a strong line-up tie-after-tie, but as a nation we do not have too many players to choose from.
"We have been lucky with team selection to pick a strong line-up tie-after-tie, but as a nation we do not have too many players to choose from.""Radek and I have tended to play singles and doubles a lot, so it is quite hard to play all of the best-of-five set matches over one weekend. With Radek in the team, it has helped us to win some vital matches. I hope it stays with us this week."
Berdych, who went 9-6 on clay this year and lifted his fifth ATP World Tour title at the BMW Open at Munich in May (d. Youzhny), has also recorded crucial Davis Cup wins over Gilles Simon, Juan Monaco and Marin Cilic this year.
"Personally, I think my best match this year was against Juan Monaco [won 6-4, 2-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2], but it was also my worst match from a tennis point of view," confirmed Berdych. "It is easy to say that it is a good match when you win three sets to love, but I was really struggling on the indoor carpet surface. David Nalbandian wasn't in Argentina team, so the Czech Republic was favourites and as a result there was a bit more pressure."
Success on the ATP World Tour has also helped build confidence, but Davis Cup success is very different to lifting a singles trophy. "It is tough to explain," admitted Berdych. "If you win a tournament you are extremely happy, but you are there on the court on your own or maybe with your coach and physio. You often don't have too much time to enjoy the moment before travelling to the next city.
"In the Davis Cup, even if you win the first rubber of a tie you can celebrate it much more with your team mates. It is a completely different feeling."
For Berdych, it is difficult to answer what he craves most: a Grand Slam, World No. 1 or Davis Cup title. "If I am to have one of those titles, I do not mind," he admitted. "They are the biggest achievements in our sport."
While attempts have floundered to reunite members of the 1980 Davis Cup winning-team for this year's final, Berdych and his Czech Republic team mates are more than ready to become modern day heroes.