At this point in time, Tomas Berdych is more useful as a benchmark for the progress of young people than as a tennis player unto himself. This is a little cruel, maybe, but it is not wrong.
For example: “How is Frances Tiafoe coming along? Hm, he snuck by Berdych in three sets.”
Or: “Hyeon Chung’s been solid on hard courts—like, roll-Berdych-in-straight-sets solid.”
These are normal thoughts and they pop in my head organically. By contrast, here is one that absolutely does not: “Wow, Berdych is hitting the ball so well. I really expect him to win this title.” The 32-year-old Czech crusher has been so comprehensively owned, and for so long, all through his prime, that his fate now feels more than sealed. The participants may vary—the Torch of Owning is passed from three of the greatest players of all time to some young newcomers—but through it all, the ownage persists. Berdych has won a few lesser titles here and there, because on forehand and backhand alike he can bang flat line drives fast enough to vanish a tennis ball before the naked eye, but first and foremost Tomas Berdych is a front-row witness to someone else’s greatness. He has been for a while.
At least he’s been reliable, in a certain sense. Balancing artfully on the cusp of relevance, Berdych hasn’t fallen out of the top 20 in eight years and has spent a good chunk of that time in the top 10. He’s always kind of there. He’s a tough out, but not too tough. Because assessing early talent is a thorny and occasionally treacherous art, it’s very convenient to to have a consistent, static standard to measure against new candidates. Anyone thinking about the future, and whether or not it wears an oversized baseball cap, might be pleased to learn that 19-year-old Denis Shapovalov just hit the mark today, with a 1-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5) win in Rome.
It’s been quiet for Shapo ever since he fell short at the Australian Open in January, sputtering out just two points away from what would have been his second-straight upset of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at a major. The pride of Canada has had a few minor wins—a rehabilitating Kei Nishikori, a random Sam Querrey—but hasn’t strung enough of them together to remotely match his giant-killing apex late last summer. Miami and Indian Wells could have been great opportunities to run deep on his preferred hard courts.
Curiously, Shapo’s season began to shift on clay, the surface that at first glance seems least suited to his walloping, win-the-point-already style. First-round exits in Monte Carlo and Hungary were to be expected. But last week in Madrid, playing just the third tour-level clay event of his life, he beat a slew of worthy foes: the indefatigable and agile Tennys Sandgren, unstable destroyer of backhands Benoit Paire, the large-serving boy Milos Raonic, and forehand-thumping Kyle Edmund, before losing to real-deal Alexander Zverev. For a teen who came up on hard courts and very recently did not know how to hit a passable defensive slice, early success on tennis’s slowest surface must have come as some surprise. Shapo likely banked on some decent match experience and lots of dirt in his shoes. Instead, he hit his second-career Masters semifinal and vaulted into the top 30 for the first time in his brief career.
Today Shapo kicked off his campaign in Rome, and was stuck with Tomas Berdych in the first round. Here was a new test for him to pass; he had failed in his only previous try at Queens last year. Berdych obliterated the teen in the first set, then gave up a break in the second. In the third, the two served their way to a draw. On to the deciding tiebreak, where Shapo blew open a 4-0 lead with some exceptional play:
Some relief from the metric system: That first ace clocked in at 138 mph. Shapo followed it up with another nasty serve down the T, then took out the trash with an inside-in forehand. Then, at 3-0, he flashed something especially encouraging. Shapovalov still struggles with his return game; over the last year he has broken an opponent’s serve on just 18 percent of return games, putting him at a lowly 78th on tour. (For contrast, he is 18th on tour in percentage of service games won.) Returning is a delicate craft demanding quick guesswork and compact strokes. Shapo likes to swing big at all costs, and that tack doesn’t always work out when a first serve is booming directly at his body. But on that 3-0 point, he neutralized a Berdych first serve with a little backhand chip, exactly the type of shot that so often eludes him. Thanks to that perfectly timed block the ball went back over the net with plenty of pace, bouncing at the tall Czech’s feet before he had even fully recovered from his service motion, and forcing a misfired backhand. Already Shapo had wrested control of the point. His execution from there on wasn’t perfect—the volley should have been a putaway, the overhead was shanked—but it was an intelligent sequence in any case.
Even more brazenly impressive was the second forehand he hit on this rally two points later, all charged up with topspin and screaming off the court. Berdych did well to even block it back, before granting the teen the whole side of open court to plant his winner.
Shapo was lucky to have the cushion of that early lead, because a steady string of errors evened the tiebreak at 5-5 before he could win two points and secure the win. Berdych was owned once more, and Shapo hit yet another milestone. He is now “beat Berdych on clay” good, which is useful to know.