Mr Tomáš Berdych
Could this be the year that the stylish Czech tennis player finally wins his first major?
Tennis coaching manuals speak gently, softly, almost archaically, of strokes. It’s not a word you will ever find yourself using about Mr Tomáš Berdych’s forehand, arguably the most brutal and devastating of its kind in tennis.
Mr Berdych, a towering figure of 6ft 5in, isn’t one to caress and tease when there’s a chance to take a giant swing. And there’s plenty more to his game than just his forehand. The Czech is considered the finest talent of his generation yet to win a Grand Slam title.
If it weren’t for his rotten luck to be playing at the same time as Messrs Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, he would almost certainly have won at least one major. A former Wimbledon finalist, who has been ranked as high as fourth in the world and who is a regular at the business end of slams, the 30-year-old has pocketed in excess of £17m ($24m) in prize money during his career, placing him in the top 10 on the all-time earners list. The big Czech has cashed some big cheques.
For the spectator, this is a golden age of men’s tennis. But for those in competition with Messrs Djokovic, Federer and Nadal, the sport has the potential to feel completely exasperating. “It’s very hard to point at one of those three and say, ‘He is the best ever,’” says Mr Berdych, when we meet him on the Côte d’Azur. “What’s more interesting is where the sport is right now, and I would say it’s in an absolutely incredible place. It’s three greats in the same generation and tennis has never had that before. Those three have made all the others much better players than they would otherwise have been. And then there are others like [Mr Andy] Murray [currently world No.2] and [Mr Stan] Wawrinka [world No.4], and then I’m trying to chase them.”
In the course of his 14-year professional career, Mr Berdych has beaten Mr Djokovic twice, Mr Nadal four times and Mr Federer six times. He has reached the semi-finals of all four Grand Slams, including Roland-Garros, which starts this year on 16 May. But so far, he hasn’t managed to win a big final. “My take on this is that if I win a slam, it would be an even bigger achievement because it’s such a tough era,” says the current world No.7. “It would be easy to look at it in another way and to become frustrated and be disappointed by that. But what are you going to achieve by thinking in that way? Tennis is at an extremely high level.”
The standard of the men’s game has never been higher, but the sport has been rocked by a spate of scandals, with allegations of match fixing, Ms Maria Sharapova failing a drugs test and a row over equal pay generated by a high-profile tournament director who suggested female players don’t deserve financial parity.
Still, Mr Berdych doesn’t think these negative headlines have done any lasting damage. “Men’s tennis is in such a strong position right now, and I don’t think these stories can hurt the sport,” he says. “There’s no evidence so far and there should be no worries. These days, it’s a bit sad that anyone can make a story and it can become very big.” What about the possibility that a number of players are using performance-enhancing drugs? “I think tennis is one of the cleanest sports – if not the cleanest – right now.”
Top athletes will always seek an edge. Such is their single-minded focus, the elite tennis players don’t socialise together and purposely stay in different hotels to avoid each other off court. “Tennis is an individual sport,” says Mr Berdych. “People are always saying, ‘Oh, so you go out with him for dinner?’ And I have to say, ‘No, no, no. It doesn’t really work like that.’ It’s not like you’re going out with the other guys. There may be groups of players on the tour who do that, but not really at the top. You want to be relaxed, so you don’t want to see the other guys. Most of the guys, they try to stay in different places, so when you’re done at the tennis, then you can switch off. That’s not meant to sound bad, but that’s just how it is. I think that shows the dedication tennis players need to have.”
When he’s not playing, Mr Berdych is based in Monaco, where he lives with his wife, the Czech supermodel Ms Ester Satorova, partly so they can enjoy relative anonymity. “What’s great about Monaco is that there are so many famous faces around that it’s normal for people there,” says Mr Berdych. “They’re used to it and it’s nothing special. We’ve never had any issues or problems.”
Not that they spend a great deal of time at home. Mr Berdych travels for up to 40 weeks of the year, such are the demands of the tour. “Honestly, I would say that tennis is the hardest sport of all, by far,” he says. “You basically sacrifice almost everything to try to become a tennis player – some kids don’t even finish school – and you give everything to the sport and then for some, it doesn’t really work out. That’s why I feel so proud of myself that I was able, and lucky enough, to make it all the way to the place I’m in right now. It’s the best job. I’m making a living from a sport I love. I can’t find one reason to complain.”
Well, maybe just one reason. There is many a doubting Tomáš out there who believe the Czech will never win a major, and Mr Berdych would love to prove them wrong. There may not be a better time for it than now: while Mr Djokovic remains the sport’s dominant figure, Mr Nadal is no longer the irresistible force he once was and Mr Federer turns 35 this summer. Could this be the year that Mr Berdych takes his place at the top table? Why not? When he is in the mood, and when he is whaling away with that ferocious forehand, he can be close to unplayable.