Tomas Berdych: The Mental Game
BNP Paribas Open Special
by Robert Davis
© Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships
Sports car nut Tomas Berdych has been a Top 10 regular for the past few years.
Through consistent play and improved mental conditioning, Tomas Berdych is stacking up match victories this year.
Tomas Berdych has big hands, big feet, long arms and even longer legs. His quadriceps are so powerful that they look like they were built to launch rockets. At six-feet, five-inches and a lean 200 pounds, the Czech is stock full of fast twitch muscle fibres. While some tennis players are built for power and others for speed, Berdych is that rare breed of beast that is built for both.
The tennis world was alerted to a precocious talent at the 2005 BNP Paribas Masters in Paris, where, on fast indoor courts, he marched through the draw chopping down five consecutive seeds and Top 20 players en route to his first ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title (d. Ljubicic). A couple of years later, he cracked the Top 10 of the Emirates ATP Rankings. It wasn’t until he beat Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic en route to the 2010 Wimbledon final (l. to Nadal), that he became an ever present in the Top 10.
This year, he has reached back-to-back ATP World Tour finals at the Open 13 in Marseille (l. to Tsonga) and the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships (l. to Djokovic). He has won 14 of his 18 matches. At present, he is attempting to close the gap on the likes of Djokovic, Federer, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal.
“I wish that this is going to be true. That’s what I’m trying to do,” says Berdych. “I’m working hard every day and trying to close that gap. Those guys are really ahead and the best thing is to play really solid to have chances to play them; right now that means in the semi-finals or final of a tournament. Once you have more matches with those four guys, you can improve yourself and you can learn from that experience. That’s the only way you can get closer to them or even become a part of them.”
For the tennis purist, watching Berdych warm up with his coach Tomas Krupa before a match is a pure delight. It would be about the same as a classical music lover getting to sit in while an orchestra rehearses a Mozart sonata. The strokes of Berdych bear no technical weaknesses. His contact zone is long by today’s standards and when the racquet meets the ball it’s so clean, so perfect, that you might think the term ‘sweet spot’ was named after him.
You would not say that he hits a heavy ball or a flat ball. But watching his ball blow past an approaching opponent, you would just say that Berdych hits it hard off his forehand and double-handed backhand wings. Until now, Miloslav Mecir had the sweetest backhand from the land formerly known as Czechoslovakia, but Berdych’s is a beauty. When he steps up and leans into a crosscourt ball, taking it on the rise, while changing the direction down the line, you know you have just seen a work of art.
When you measure Berdych stroke for stroke against any other player, you wonder how he ever loses a point, much less a match. But Berdych plays on a knife’s edge and his is the ultimate high-risk, high-reward game. On his best day when the ball is clearly visible and there is little wind or humidity to slow its flight, Berdych can shut you down before you even finish the warm-up. But tennis matches can be long, arduous affairs where conditions are more often than not less than perfect. Witness his 2010 Wimbledon final versus Nadal or last year’s US Open semi-final loss to Murray. Both matches were played in windy conditions and Berdych was far from his best.
Berdych realised where he had to strengthen the weak link in his game.
“What I’ve been really trying to work on is mental strength and preparation for every single match,” admits Berdych. “They are very important aspects of today’s game. Especially now. Everybody can play a good forehand and backhand. There is no difference at all. It’s really just about the small details and one of them is the mental preparation, which I’ve been trying to improve. I believe I did so, but you can improve these aspects a lot. I hope this is something that can take me higher.
“There’s a lot you can say about that really. It’s concentration in the match. It’s also what you do around: how you deal with the situations on court and off court. It’s not only about once you step on the court. It’s been the work of my team. Part of it has definitely been my tennis coach. He can help me with that as well. I’ve also been working with one guy, not a sports psychologist as such, but a mental coach, which is a little bit different than a psychologist. It works, quite well. I’ve been working with him for two or three years.”
Ivan Lendl, Miloslav Mecir, Jan Kodes, Petr Korda, Jiri Novak and Radek Stepanek are just a few stars of the men’s game who have represented the Czech Republic, famed for brewing beer and producing sports stars. Berdych is not arrogant or disrespectful to Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, or past legends but he just does not do the idol thing. “Actually, never. I never had any tennis idol,” says Berdych. “I would never be just for one name or following a player like crazy, wanting to look like him or play like him or anything like that. I always wanted to be myself. Hopefully it works well. And I try to keep it that.”
Inside the locker room Berdych is friendly, easy going and gets along well with his fellow players. But in the press he has often been mislabeled as surly or boring with his single syllable answers. He certainly does not possess Federer’s velvet touch with the press. Nor does he try too. By nature, Berdych is a bit reserved. Not exactly hiding behind any old Iron Curtain, but definitely not ready to go on Oprah Winfrey’s show either.
Berdych does not give out too much information, but with age he is showing signs of softening up some. Like when DEUCE asked him if he is a better player today than when he made the final of Wimbledon.
“Yes, of course,” says Berdych. “I’ve been through many experiences and one of them was to make that final. I know that if I were to reach another Grand Slam final, I would be in a different position. I would know more about it. It’s been a few years, there have been many new experiences, and yes, I’m definitely a better player than in 2010.”
There are no quick fixes at the top of the ATP World Tour. Improvements can and often do take the better part of a season. Or even two years. In the past, Berdych was labeled as a dangerous talent who could play big at times. Now with his improved mental conditioning and solid performances at the important times you would have to say that he is in perfect position to play and stay in the big time.