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Steve Flink: Berdych First Big Name To Go

5/23/2011 3:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Tomas Berdych must be shaking his head, wondering how it happened, wishing he could have avoided the indignity of a first round departure at Roland Garros, knowing he was in control of his own destiny before he let it all slip away. Berdych really had no business losing his contest against a 31-year-old French qualifier named Stephane Robert, a player who is ranked No. 140 in the world. Robert had never won a match against a top ten opponent. He had never found a way to win a match in the main draw at Roland Garros. He had never secured a five set win in his entire career. But the Frenchman somehow rallied from two sets down to oust the No. 6 ranked player in the world. Robert prevailed 3-6, 3-6, 6-2, 6-2, 9-7 for a victory like no other in his career. He is to be commended for fighting back from so far behind, and not losing faith in himself. Moreover, Robert had the disadvantage of serving from behind in the fifth set, and three times he had to hold just to stay in the match. On top of that, he saved a match point.

Yet while this was an admirable win from a player who was boosted fervently by the French fans, the fact remains that Berdych let himself down by not exploiting his experience and failing to get the job done. Berdych may have allowed himself to get overconfident when he sealed the first two sets, but there is no reasonable explanation for losing the third and fourth sets so badly. Berdych has some of the purest ground strokes in the sport, times the ball beautifully, and overpowers his adversaries with effortless power and remarkable ball control. A year ago, he was a semifinalist at Roland Garros and he moved ahead of Robin Soderling two sets to one before losing a first class match. At Wimbledon, he downed both Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic to reach the final, losing to Rafael Nadal. Those twin showings were irrefutable evidence that he can play on any surface, and compete with the best players in the world.

Berdych did not perform nearly as well across the second half of 2010. In an important contest over the summer, he took on Federer in the quarterfinals of the Masters 1000 event in Toronto. On the edge of a third consecutive head-to-head triumph over the Swiss, Berdych served for the match at 5-4 in the final set but he could not close the deal. Federer rallied to win in a tie-break, and the loss for Berdych seemed to linger. He fell in the first round of the U.S. Open to the left-handed Michael Llodra and faded down the stretch of the season. And yet, he had been playing reasonably well if unspectacularly in 2011. He lost in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open to Djokovic, made it to the semifinals of Dubai and lost a closer match to Djokovic, and was impressive in taking a set off Nadal in the quarters of Miami. On the clay en route to Roland Garros, his standards remained respectable as Berdych got to the quarterfinals in Madrid and Rome, and last week made it to the penultimate round of Nice.

So this loss to a qualifier had better sting. Berdych was protecting a lot of points on the ATP computer, and that may have weighed on his mind during the latter stages of a tight battle. Not only was he simply trying to play his way into the tournament and thus give himself another chance to be in strong contention for the title, but he wants to keep his place among the elite top ten in the world. Now that status for Berdych is in jeopardy.  The pressure will only grow when he returns to the All England Club. Unless he goes at least as far as the quarterfinals on the grass—and that will not be easy—his ranking will take another substantial hit.

Berdych needs to forget about the rankings, and start figuring out ways to do himself more justice. His match against Robert is an excellent case in point. He was outclassing the Frenchman comprehensively for two sets, lost his way completely for two sets, and then seemed ready to reignite his game and get back on track in the fifth and final set. To be sure, Robert’s boldness late in the fifth set was highly impressive. Berdych was not missing much from the back of the court, and was keeping his shots deep most of the way. He seemed to believe that his unheralded opponent would crack at a crucial moment, and the world No. 6 was giving Robert every chance to do that.

Robert did not oblige. He was releasing some dazzling shots off both sides in the last set, catching Berdych off guard with down the line forehand and backhand winners, going for surprisingly big and daring second serves as well. He was saying to Berdych,” You are going to have to win this match because I am not giving it to you.” Berdych got that message loud and clear, but was not able to find that extra gear in his game to take matters more into his own hands. Berdych needed to take a few more chances during the rallies in Robert’s service games, but he did not have the gumption to explore that avenue. The 25-year-old was not flagrantly choking, but then again his conservatism was costly.

The worst moment for Berdych came in the tenth game of that fifth set. With Robert serving at match point down, the Frenchman produced a mediocre first serve deep to the backhand, and Berdych failed to keep his return in play, driving his two-hander long. Robert then apparently broke a string on the next point as he went for a forehand down the line, but he hit a winner. Changing rackets, Robert cracked a big first serve down the T that Berdych could not handle. It was 5-5. At 5-6, Robert held at 30, but at 6-7 the Frenchman held easily at 15.

At 7-7, Berdych advanced to 40-30, but Robert unleashed a backhand return winner down the line off a kick serve. At deuce, Robert was on the run but cracked another two-hander down the line for another winner. Berdych got back to deuce but Robert was going for it all. He rolled a forehand down the line return out of Berdych’s reach to earn a second break point. Now brimming with confidence, he used a backhand down the line to set up a forehand down the line, and it was another outright winner. Robert at last had the break, and he served out the match with surprising poise, holding at 15. Robert had outperformed Berdych in the end after an inauspicious start.

Berdych will now have a long break before he prepares for Wimbledon. He has to put this inexplicable loss behind him, and remember that he worked hard to earn his status as the No. 6 player in the world. Berdych seems almost too placid at times for his own good, too willing to accept unacceptable losses. He has improved markedly as a player over the years, turning his forehand into a much better shot, adding heft to his first serve, honing his backhand and making that two-hander one of the sport’s best. What seems to be missing is the right mentality. Maybe Tomas Berdych will take this humiliating defeat and use it to push himself on to greater heights. This was a match that was his to win, and he found a way to lose it. The silver lining for Berdych would be if he is so infuriated that he wakes up tomorrow and vows never to bow out in that fashion again.

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