Less is more for refreshed Berdych

  • Reem Abulleil

When an 18-year-old Tomas Berdych made his Australian Open debut in 2004 as a qualifier and got crushed in straight sets by a fourth-ranked Andre Agassi in the second round, he probably didn’t expect he’d end up being one of the most consistent performers of his generation at Melbourne Park.

The veteran Czech has reached the quarterfinals or better in seven of his past eight appearances in Melbourne, and breezed through his two opening rounds this week, setting up an intriguing showdown with No. 18 seed Diego Schwartzman on Friday.

“I passed qualies and then I played against Andre. It was a hell of an experience right away. Just when you get through the qualies, you play on those outside courts and then you end up on Rod Laver Arena against Agassi, it was quite a tough draw for my first Australian Open, but that’s alright,” Berdych recalled.  

“The only thing I’m more sad about is that I played Andre two times in my career and never managed to beat him, and he’s actually the only one of those top guys that have a clean sheet with me. So unfortunately I cannot change that,” the 33-year-old added with a smile.

A teenage Berdych was no match for Agassi back in 2004

Berdych, a former world No. 4 who is currently ranked 57 following a six-month break from the sport, has blasted out of the gates this new season, reaching the final in Doha earlier this month, and showing some ominous form so far at the Australian Open.

He hasn’t dropped a set, or a service game, through his first two matches at Melbourne Park this fortnight, has won 88 per cent of his first-serve points and has faced just one break point. He has converted 10 of the 14 break point opportunities he created and fired 65 winners – which is more than double his unforced error count.

Those are some impressive numbers from someone who was sidelined from the sport for half a year nursing a back injury.

Being forced to stay away from the sport can be agonising for some, but Berdych saw it as a true blessing, and says it was an eye-opening experience.

“It was definitely a very good thing for me,” he admits. 

“After all those many years and all those seasons basically melted all in one and just keep going for such a long time, to take a break like this, it was – I almost want to say it was the best thing that I’ve done for a really long period. 

“It just opened up my eyes a lot, gave me a different view and perspective on tennis. I also basically got to experience how life can be when you stop one day, so it’s also nice to have that experience. It was a nice experience so it’s something I can even look forward to, not to be afraid of what’s going to happen after [I retire]. It was a very positive six months.”

I’m able to enjoy it much more, or way more than I used to … I think that’s the number one thing
Tomas Berdych

Berdych wasn’t close to retiring from tennis while he was away, but he wasn’t completely averse to the idea, either.

“I just took a full half year off, there was also the option that after three, four months I would say, ‘I don’t really feel like coming back, it’s actually not bad and I could stay home’, but I was able to find the motivation and something that still drives me for me to go,” said the former Wimbledon finalist.

The powerhouse Czech hasn't dropped a service game yet at AO 2019

With a professional career that started 17 years ago, Berdych was happy to take a step back for a while. It’s not always easy to gain new perspective in tennis, given the repetitive nature of life on tour, and the Czech is grateful he got the opportunity to view things a little differently.

“If you are going week by week, you don’t really have time to look and see the things differently. But when I took time off, for me it was like really get out of some box that is just spinning around and you can’t really get out of it and it’s just melting you down,” he says.

“And when you take time off, you get out of it and you watch the box from the outside and you see all that’s happening. And also what you’re missing being always just in tennis and being in this everyday routine. Life isn’t only about that.

“It’s just nice to experience it while the career is going. And then you have a better and clear view of what you want to do, how you want to move towards your future steps.”

The Monaco resident, known for his deadly forehand just as much as his bold fashion choices, is now approaching the final chapter of his career with an extra charge of excitement.

“Really, I’m able to enjoy it much more, or way more than I used to,” he said. 

“I think that’s the number one thing overall.”