Did you know there is a Berdych Army? It's sort of like Arnold Palmer's Army, except younger, better-looking and funnier. And Australian. That's right, Tomas Berdych, the pale-eyed Czech giant, has a fan club that follows his every move at the Aussie Open, cracking up their fellow spectators with group chants such as, "If you all love Tomas, hug your mate." The Army's de facto general, a long-haired, shirtless 20-something, says he walked over to a side court at the tournament one year, caught a glimpse of Berdych in action and has been hooked ever since.
Since hearing those surprising words, I've tried to understand what it is about Berdych that could inspire such maniacal devotion. The Army spends a fair amount each year on blocks of tickets for the tournament, including front-row seats when Berdych makes it to Rod Laver Arena. I've tried, and mostly failed. The first thing you notice about Berdych is his chilliness. He has cold, pale eyes, rarely flashes an unsarcastic smile and walks with a robotic uprightness between points. Even his one moment of contact with his opponent, the handshake, has an icy, martial feel to it. It's as if Berdych wants to eliminate everything human and vulnerable from his persona and game. He's just like his hero and countryman Ivan Lendl -- except that Berdych never wins. The vulnerability remains.
So I was surprised this past weekend, as I watched Berdych fight so well before finally crumbling to Roger Federer in the Madrid final, to feel a good deal of sympathy for the Big Berd. I wasn't chanting his name or hugging my mate, but Berdych seemed almost like a tragic figure out there. He played so well, moved better than ever, hung with Federer, even beat him off the ground and smacked his backhand down the line bravely on big points. More impressive was how well he fought. Berdych refused to do what we all thought he would do -- i.e., cave -- when he fell behind in each of the last two sets.
Until, that is, he finally went and caved, double-faulting twice to lose the second set and dropping his serve again to end the third. Berdych looked more stunned by the defeat than he might have in the past. He sat down afterward with a look of pained disbelief on his face as he ran his towel through his hair, and he spoke later of his commitment to breaking through against the top players at the big events. Berdych always has had the game -- few have ever hit with such effortless power -- but always has lacked the will and the nerve.
That could be changing as we speak. Although we rarely mention Berdych in the same breath as Murray or del Potro or Tsonga or even Isner as a guy who could end the top three's current stranglehold on the Grand Slams, he is closing in on the No. 6 ranking. He also gave Nadal everything he could handle in Melbourne. Plus, Berdych has four career wins over Federer and has been crushing guys ranked below him lately. There was a time when I used to think of Berdych as being so close, yet so far -- now he just seems so close.
After his valiant but doomed effort Sunday, I'll look forward to Berdych's quest to finally win that one point or game that always seems to elude him. I'll look forward to seeing tennis' Tin Man try to find his heart.