Monday, 6 October 2008

It's Not All Mental...

Tomas Berdych's win over Juan Martin del Potro in Japan this weekend reminded us once again of the immense (but as of yet unfulfilled) promise of the young Czech. Del Potro had won 29 of his last 30 matches going into this final; his only other loss was to Andy Murray at the US Open, whose recent success has taken him to #4 in the world.
Can we now expect a similar upturn in Berdych's fortunes - is he finally ready to come of age?

He's always been something of a conundrum to most people: he possesses all the ingredients that should make him a top 10 player at the very least. He's strong, has a big serve and possesses thundering groundstrokes that should enable him to hit almost anyone off court. He's been likened to Safin many a time: a flattering comparison if it weren't for the fact that he also mirrors the Russian's well documented inconsistency.

I haven't seen enough of Berdych's play (particularly when he's playing well) to form a balanced opinion of him: I missed his oft reported win over Federer at the 2004 Athens Olympics and didn't get to see much of his victory at the Paris Masters in 2005. So in all fairness I may have missed his best spells of tennis.

However I still think its a little simplistic to try to explain Berdych's problems with consistency solely in terms of the mind (how many times have you heard a discussion, or read an article on Berdych that doesn't make use of the word 'headcase'?).

There can be no doubt that he struggles with confidence and belief. He often appears to have checked out mentally, displaying poor body language, especially when his opponent is winning. However he also needs to tighten up other areas of his game if he is become the star that many expect.

My main issue is with his serve; undoubtedly a huge weapon, but can you truly say he's had the success with it that his 6'5" heavy frame would warrant? I say this because I had a similar beef with Andy Murray prior to Wimbledon. He's 6'3 and doesn't have the same stature as Berdych, but through his (now famous) revamped fitness regime and plenty of practice, has managed to crank his serve up to around the 130mph mark, throwing in plenty of aces in virtually every match he plays. Berdych doesn't need to bulk up the way Murray did - a big serve that can dominate opponents, winning him most or all of his service games, should be a given with him.

His other issue seems to be movement; some things you can't change - most players of his size compensate for their lack of agility with powerful groundstrokes which they can use to shorten rallies, and largely dictate play. Again, he has great groundstrokes but they're not providing him with enough insulation against the more aggressive players. Is this all once again, down to confidence? Would more belief in himself really turn things around? As of yet I remain unconvinced, mostly because I've seen a number of matches where he appears to be coping mentally but still fails to display the form we now readily associate with Djokovic or Murray.

This is where I think the comparison with Safin is somewhat misplaced.
When you see Safin play - even on a bad day, you do at least get glimpses of the type of shotmaking that made it possible for him to win Slams. What you see when watching Berdych are heavy, and at times punishing
groundstrokes that are well worthy of a top ten player. That's not a bad thing - its been enough to take him to a career high of #9, but isn't in itself enough IMHO to warrant the next-big-thing type predictions that are often bandied about.

That's not to say he can't reenter the top ten or even crack the top five - its just that the improvements that need to be made are more than merely mental.
Still, this win in Japan, against one of the best players of the year suggest that he's moving in the right direction.
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