The New York Giant-Killer?
Outside of that one shining moment two years ago in Athens, Tomas Berdych is not exactly a household name, except in his own household.
But what a shining moment it was: Aug. 17, 2004, second round of the Olympic tennis tournament, the tall and handsome 18-year-old from the Czech Republic, curly hair brushed back from striking blue eyes, twilight shadows spreading across the surface, receiving serve on his third match point.
“It was a second serve, to my backhand side,” Berdych recalls. “Same as where he hit it on my second match point. That got us into a rally and he won the point. I felt a little crimp in my leg during that point. But on the third one, I hit a backhand return winner. Then I had won.”
Not just won, defeated the No. 1 player in the world, the almost invincible Roger Federer, as sure a thing as there was for an Olympic gold medal for Switzerland. Federer was No. 1 then, is No. 1 now, and appears set to be No. 1 for the foreseeable future.
Berdych was the last player to beat Federer that year, and only a handful have done so since. The main giant-killer in Federer’s life is Rafael Nadal, the Spaniard who has been the bane of Federer’s existence, especially on clay courts.
And guess who the main giant-killer’s giant-killer is? Yes, young Berdych, just nine months Nadal’s senior and a two-time winner over the current No. 2 player in the world. Berdych beat Nadal last year at Cincinnati and this year at Toronto, both tennis Masters Series events, those tournaments designated as the next level just below the four Grand Slam tournaments and the Olympics.
Berdych is the only player on the tour to beat both Federer and Nadal since they became Nos. 1 and 2. Nadal got to No. 2 on July 25, 2005. Berdych was also the only player other than the two top dogs to win a Masters Series event last year, when he won at Paris. Either Federer or Nadal won the other eight.
Since the beginning of 2004 -- Federer became No. 1 on Feb. 2 of that year -- the Swiss maestro has had only 15 losses, including six to Nadal and the Olympic setback to Berdych.
Berdych is ranked 14th and seeded 12th at the U.S. Open and won’t reach his 21st birthday until Sept. 17. He is 6 feet 4, and would warrant more attention here if anybody actually knew who he was. Were he a player from the United States, where the search for the next big thing in American tennis is becoming slightly drastic, he would be spending equal time on the pages of Tennis and People magazines.
Tuesday, as he awaited the inevitable rain postponement of his first-round match against unseeded Boris Pashanski of Serbia, scheduled out in a back pasture on Court 13, he made it clear that, while he has a bit more swagger than the rest of the tour when it comes to playing Federer and Nadal, any characterization of being a giant-killer is not his.
“I think, with Nadal, a lot of how I feel is because we are the same age,” Berdych says. “We played a couple of times when we were juniors and we kind of know each other. I have tactics that I have learned when I play him that might be different than the other players.”
Well, that’s much different, Berdych says. “He is a much better player now. The last four times I played him, I lost. Once, at Hamburg, it was so easy for him. Mostly, I had no chance in any of them.”
Berdych, whose mother is a doctor and father a train engineer, is fairly shy and still in the process of mastering the English language, much like many of the people in the press room here. He is happy to have his parents with him in New York for only his fourth U.S. Open, as well as his girlfriend, 43rd-ranked tour player Lucie Safarova, also of the Czech Republic.
He says he does not look ahead in the draw, and never talks about lofty expectations, even if asked.
“If somebody had come up to me before I won in Toronto and asked me to talk about how I was feeling,” he says, “I would have said we will talk later.”
So there was no enticing him into a comment on his U.S. Open prospects, where the draw shows him with one likely bump in a road -- No. 5 James Blake -- that would put him in a quarterfinal bracket opposite Federer.
If that happens, giant-killing will become an issue once again.
Dwyre can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.