Tomas Berdych's grand plan
PARIS -- Tomas Berdych has a message to share: His best tennis is yet to come. Of course, he's not sure when that day will come, but it sounds like a tacit warning for the rest of the field.
In 2010, he reached the French Open semifinals and the Wimbledon final. His surge actually began in Miami that year, when he saved a match point to defeat Roger Federer.
Yet Berdych sounds happier with his 2011 season.
"I was able to keep my consistency of good results, which makes me more stable in the top positions in the world," Berdych said.
He was a frequent visitor to the quarterfinals and semifinals of tournaments, but he didn't make much impact at the Slams. His best result was a quarterfinal appearance at the Australian Open.
What To Watch, Day 8
• The first big match of the men's side will take place in the evening on Court Suzanne Lenglen, with Tomas Berdych facing Juan Martin del Potro. Roger Federer will play earlier in the day against talented but inexperienced lucky loser David Goffin.
• Victoria Azarenka will take on small but powerful Dominika Cibulkova, who usually gives her a battle.
• Novak Djokovic will play Andreas Seppi, who was the hero of Rome a couple of weeks back, reaching the semifinals.
• American teen Sloane Stephens gets her biggest challenge yet, facing former finalist Samantha Stosur with an Olympic spot potentially on the line.
There are two ingredients for getting to the top in men's tennis these days: the ability to beat the top players in big matches and playing consistently well all year long. A lot of players find the first more challenging, but not someone with Berdych's big-bombing talent.
"I think for me [it was] harder to get consistency through whole year," said the 26-year-old Czech. "Because when I started my career I was actually able to beat big guys, win the big matches. But then I was a bit struggling to keep the form during some periods. But to get that consistency of good results during the whole year, it was the first time that's what I was able to do it last year, so it took quite a while."
Not that he's satisfied yet. "But still, I was missing some good results during the year," he concedes. "I was playing quarters, semis, but that was not enough. But that's the experience I get from those two years. And this year, I'm already keeping the consistency and then I bring some good results -- one title, playing final at Madrid. And that's what I need if I want to even move higher in the rankings."
In addition to winning a title in Montpellier, France, and pushing Federer to the brink in the Madrid final, Berdych quietly has strung together a solid season. Apart from a blip during the U.S. March swing in Indian Wells and Miami, he has generally lost only to the big four of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Federer and Andy Murray. His only other defeat was to 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro, who just happens to be Berdych's next opponent here in Paris.
It's all part of Berdych's grand plan to put together the big wins of 2010 with the consistency of 2011, and move up from being merely dangerous to being part of the group at the top. Berdych notes with some satisfaction that despite his world ranking of No. 7, he's actually No. 5 in the year-to-date results.
"Of course, it's tough to say you can be top three, but I think the chance maybe for the fourth or definitely the fifth is quite big this year, so that's what I'm trying to do," he said.
Like his game, Berdych's personal armor is not easy to pierce. But there has been one major change in his life he recently reflected on: His longtime relationship with fellow Czech player Lucie Safarova ended last year, and Berdych is now dating a Czech model, who has become a fixture courtside, agonizing over his matches. Looking back, he thinks dating another player made the on-court/off-court balance more difficult to manage.
"I think it was too much tennis," he said in Monte Carlo. "I'm dealing with everyday work that you have to play, practice, organize this stuff, then winning, losing, handle this situation.
"So I'm really enjoying that, that it's different, that I met somebody with a different life. It's a nice experience."
The winner of the Berdych-del Potro clash would likely play Federer. Del Potro is Berdych's main rival in the quest to move up alongside the big four. The Argentine is also finally starting to sound confident again after long periods of uncertainty following his wrist surgery in 2010.
"I'm really enjoying this sport again and I'm really glad to be here," del Potro said in Rome a couple of weeks ago, and he believes he is mentally nearly back to where he was during his breakout 2009 season. "I think it's getting close, day [by] day. I'm really confident in my game at this moment, and I'm looking forward for this season also."
Though del Potro has been hitting his forehand with fearsome force, he is also struggling with his knee at this event and has been a little up and down in his contests so far. It's a match that could be critical for both players' seasons.
Roger Federer's easy, breezy first week continues against lucky loser David Goffin, who wasn't even supposed to be playing in this tournament. The 21-year-old Belgian lost in qualifying and only made the main draw when Gael Monfils withdrew. But Goffin then turned around and won three matches against experienced veterans.
"Now I'm playing against Roger, and I can't believe it," he said. "When I was young I had a lot of pictures in my bedroom of him."
When was that, last week? With his schoolboy face, Goffin has heard jokes that he looks like a junior who got lost and ended up in the main draw. But even in the juniors, he might get turned away and told to join the ball boys.
But he was more than capable of dealing with questions about whether he thought he had a chance against Federer. "If I say yes I will sound arrogant," he said. "If I say no you'll say I lack ambition."
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