If there was an accolade for racking up the most number of “best never to have won a major” tags entering a Grand Slam event, Tomas Berdych would surely be among the front-runners.
The huge-hitting Czech has been cemented in the top 10 since 2010 and coming from a country with such a rich pedigree of men’s Grand Slam champions – namely Petr Korda, Jan Kodes and the great Ivan Lendl – the expectations have been building since an 18-year-old Berdych knocked Roger Federer out of the Athens Olympic Games.
That was 2004, though, and nearly a decade on, the 28-year-old is still searching for that elusive breakthrough.
On any given day, when he is in control, dictating the points, Berdych can beat the best above him.
In advancing to the final eight in 2014, Berdych is now a four-time quarterfinalist in Melbourne, and the Australian Open remains the only Grand Slam where he is yet to reach the semifinals or better.
His standout result remains his run to the 2010 Wimbledon final, where he defeated Federer and Novak Djokovic back-to-back before falling to Rafael Nadal. Had he beaten Nadal in that final he would have been the first player to beat the big three in the same Grand Slam.
Berdych’s season in 2013 was solid, but far from impressive. He did not win a title but made three finals and reached the quarterfinals or better in 15 of 23 events. He fell twice in Grand Slam quarterfinals (the Australian Open and Wimbledon) to Djokovic and lost to Stanislas Wawrinka in the US Open fourth round before qualifying for the World Tour Finals in November.
Where the Grand Slam trophy is missing from his collection, it is representing his country where Berdych has truly shone.
He finished 2013 helping guide the Czech Republic to its second straight Davis Cup triumph, a task made all the more complex having to win away from home in the final, before a rowdy Serbian crowd in Belgrade.
While blessed with the type of all-court game, the power and the height any player would dream of, it is when the big prize is within sight that his game often goes missing.
Berdych insists he is making a concerted effort to add that missing element, calling on the expertise of a mental coach.
“I’m working hard every day and trying to close the gap,” he has said. “Those guys are really ahead. Once you have more matches with the top guys, you can improve yourself and you can learn from that experience. That’s the only way you can get closer to them or even become a part of them.”
After walloping Federer for the second time in a Grand Slam quarterfinal at the 2012 US Open, Berdych reiterated the confidence he holds in his ability.
“As I have said before, if my game is well and I’m able to play it, then I have a dangerous game to beat anyone,” he said.
Andy Murray paid tribute to the 195cm Czech’s explosive if not unpredictable game on the eve of their semifinal at that very US Open.
“I mean, Tomas is a huge, huge hitter of the ball. Even if you want to dictate points and be aggressive, he can take that away from you because he’s such a powerful guy,” Murray said.
“You need to be smart against him. You need to use good variation and try not and give him the same ball over and over, because he likes that. He is a great player and you have to show him respect.
“It’s different to playing Roger, because you know what you are getting. The key to the match is usually pretty simple. The better player on the day and the more aggressive usually wins, but Tomas is different.”
Where Djokovic channeled the confidence and euphoria of winning the Davis Cup for Serbia in 2010 to completely dominate the men’s tour in 2011, Berdych was unable to do the same in 2013 after his 2012 triumph for the Czech Republic.
He gets a second crack at carrying a Davis Cup title run into the new season.
Whether he’s finally ready to do it alone remains to be seen.
Berdych takes on David Ferrer in a quarterfinal on Tuesday afternoon at Rod Laver Arena.