Sometime in 2013, Tomas Berdych apparently decided to enjoy the ride, instead of lamenting his fate as one of the have-nots in the Big Four era. While Stan Wawrinka got his famous tattoo to make peace with his role as a foil for the historic achievements of the Big Four, Berdych did something more low key – he joined Twitter. But, for Berdych, a player known for his short fuse on court and his tendency to pull back in key moments, letting the world in on his goofy sense of humor was a way of acknowledging that he had better start having fun with the career he had, instead of mourning the one that had been denied to him by the Big Four’s dominance.
— Tomáš Berdych (@tomasberdych) October 19, 2014
Not every player left on the short end of the Big Four’s dominance has borne it with as heavy a heart as Berdych. Indeed, Gael Monfils has embraced his superstar status and enjoys playing to the crowd, even at the expense of winning matches. Marcos Baghdatis remains relatively upbeat (if prone to a few racket smashes) even though he has failed to recapture the form that propelled him to the 2006 Australian Open final, and has been playing in Challenger events over the past year. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, another rare non-Big-Four Grand Slam finalist in this era, has had impressive victories, including his run to the Toronto title last year, but hasn’t let his failure to win the big prizes dampen his effervescent persona.
For Berdych, standing in the shadows was not so easy to accept. Lacking the easy charm of Tsonga or Monfils, he was, perhaps unfairly, tagged as a head case, and an underachiever, given his powerful game and his ability, on occasion, to put the beatdown on the members of the Big Four, most memorably his four-set win over Federer at the 2012 US Open. But, on Twitter, Berdych was a different guy altogether.
From his Wham! sing-a-longs with PseudoFed, to his ability to poke fun at his loss to Marin Cilic in darkness at Wimbledon, Berdych’s Twitter feed shows a much funnier and more earnest personality than he’d let out before.
— Tomáš Berdych (@tomasberdych) June 27, 2014
And even when he did lose his temper on the court, he was able to set things right on Twitter.
this i my personal apologize to the referee from yesterday.She was right.My emotions were driving my crazy…Sorry for that
— Tomáš Berdych (@tomasberdych) September 5, 2014
If this had been the end of the story, it would have been a good one. Yet, Stan Wawrinka’s win at last year’s Australian Open suddenly changed everything. After winning every single Grand Slam title except one between the 2005 French Open and the 2014 Australian Open, the Big Four really was starting to give way, even if just a little. Wawrinka’s win wasn’t the lightning-in-a-bottle performance Juan Martin del Potro gave to become the only non-Big Four winner in that 2005-2014 stretch. Instead, it was the culmination of Wawrinka’s steady rise over the past 12 months, with near-wins against Novak Djokovic at the 2013 Australian and US Opens, and then finally breaking through playing his game at a consistently high level to beat Djokovic and then to overpower an injured but battling Nadal in the final.
While the Big Four hadn’t exactly retired from the stage, the wealth started getting spread around a little more. Tsonga beat Federer, Grigor Dimitrov, and Novak Djokovic en route to the 2014 Toronto title, and Marin Cilic won the US Open over Kei Nishikori. It became clear that, at last, the Big Four had slowed down enough that there was a glimmer of opportunity for veterans like Berdych to grab an elusive Slam title before the next generation pushed them to the sidelines.
So, perhaps it wasn’t surprising that Berdych reached out to his tennis idol, Ivan Lendl to bring him to that title. Even though Berdych reported (on Twitter, naturally) that Lendl was not available to coach him, he made it clear that he really wanted Lendl on his team. And, he took Lendl’s suggestion of hiring Dani Vallverdu as his coach, though he held out hope that he might be able to reunite Lendl and Vallverdu to work the same magic they did as a part of Andy Murray’s coaching team.
As much as commentators noted the similarities between Murray and Lendl – the sarcasm, the lost Grand Slam finals, in some ways Berdych and Lendl would make a more compelling team, Berdych’s brand of power tennis is much closer to Lendl’s pioneering style than Murray’s mix of spins and dinks. Moreover, while Murray suffered under the pressure of a nation that loved him too much, Berdych, like Lendl, has the opposite problem – not being loved by the masses, despite playing quality tennis and being a fixture in the top 10 for nearly a decade.
So, with Vallverdu in his corner, last night, at the Australian Open, Berdych faced down Rafael Nadal – the owner of a much hyped 17 match win streak against the Berd. Yet, Berdych came out blazing and raced to a two sets to love lead. To be sure, Nadal was not playing his best. Nadal’s shots were falling short, and he seemed to lack the intensity that has generally enabled him to win, even when not playing his best. But, being up two sets to love against Nadal was far from a guarantee. Predictably, Nadal redoubled his efforts in the third set, but Berdych did not lose his nerve. Instead, he continued to push Nadal from side to side, and to make the best of the advantages he has always had in the matchup – namely, his power and his ability to hit Nadal’s topspin shots in his strike zone. Late in the third set, Berdych survived Nadal’s surge, erased two break points on his own serve, and earned two match points when Nadal was serving to stay in the match. Nadal, still battling, hit two impeccable serves to get to a tiebreak.
A few years ago, that lost opportunity would have been enough for Berdych to doubt himself, and for Nadal to turn things around completely. This time was different. Berdych raced out to a 5-1 lead in the tiebreak, held his nerve when Nadal came back to 5-4, and served it out. His joy in winning was palpable, and, despite the great respect for Nadal, one had the sense that the spectators were genuinely happy for Berdych, and hopeful that he might get his day in the sun after all.
As much as the last few years has seen the tennis world eagerly anticipate Nadal’s 9th French Open, or Federer’s 17th Grand Slam title, the next few years might see a different kind of uncharted territory – first titles for some of the supporting cast. While it may be less compelling for fans used to the Big Four rivalries, there is something heartening about seeing at least a few of the other talented, hard-working guys make good. With his new coach and breezier outlook, Tomas Berdych might just be the next one to claim a prize – and his tweets afterwards will be epic.