Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga are tennis brothers of sorts. They are good enough to pay off Top-10 mortgages, but without the capital for luxurious superstar status and Grand Slam fame.
Berdych is 28 years old, possesses a big serve, clean groundstrokes and has had a few flirtations with Grand Slam success. He hit his apex with an appearance in the 2010 Wimbledon final, before getting whitewashed by Rafael Nadal. He has one semifinal appearance in each of the Australian, French and U.S. Opens. He owns one Masters 1000 trophy, Paris 2005.
Tsonga is 28 years old, possesses a big serve, powerful forehand and has danced in the shadows of Grand Slam success. His breakthrough 2008 Australian Open final appearance was a wonderful story until Novak Djokovic stepped over him to get his first Grand Slam tally. It remains Tsonga's pinnacle achievement. He has semifinal appearances in Australia, France and has two at Wimbledon. He also claimed his one Masters 1000 trophy, Paris 2008.
For years, Berdych and Tsonga were excused for getting run over by the likes of Roger Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. The Big Three were simply too brilliant and could overwhelm their rivals at the coin toss. Berdych and Tsonga were notches in the history belts of legends, the Washington Generals to the globe-trotting ATP conquests of flashier and bigger champions.
But there are signs that the Big Three Golden Age is setting. Federer is older, Nadal injury-prone and Djokovic beatable. Journeyman Stanislas Wawrinka, also 28 years old, suddenly won the Australian Open.
What are the chances that Berdych and Tsonga climb the mountain to shout at the world? Is there time and belief enough to win one major?
Berdych and Tsonga on Trial
Historically, Berdych and Tsonga have been lauded for their mighty power and skills. They have also been maligned for losing big matches. When the pressure is greatest, they rarely play their best tennis.
Is it a problem of the head or the heart?
Is it just a deficit of championship traits encoded only in the DNA of exclusive legends?
Berdych has had his share of vultures circling around each time he collapses. Long-time tennis writer Pete Bodo sized him up bluntly a couple years ago in Tennis.com:
(Berdych is) a mercurial, world-class head case who can trade shots with anyone but is apt to do his greatest damage when it matters least.
That's Berdych: make the impossible shots, miss the ones that are either important or doable (at least against the better players).
Tsonga? His run to the 2013 French Open semifinals was a revival of Yannick Noah fever. Most tennis people had even pegged him as the favorite to defeat David Ferrer, a man with about half his size and power. But Tsonga got swept in straight sets. The post-analysis by Andrew Lilley for Roland Garros led with the following:
After dispatching Roger Federer and making the semi-finals without dropping so much as a set, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga failed to turn up for his date with destiny...
Tsonga was a shadow of the man who had cruised through the earlier rounds. He seemed agitated, irritated (literally – emptying water bottles into his eyes mid-way through the match – and metaphorically) and mentally perturbed.
There could be many judgments if these two were put on trial, so let's briefly examine a few of them and let tennis fans decide.
At this point in their careers, the prosecution might charge that Berdych and Tsonga are going through the motions, collecting quarterfinals checks and not putting their hearts into improved training.
Innocent or guilty?
Maybe the effort is there, but Berdych and Tsonga are ground down. The defense might suggest that it can't be easy to wake up and look for a championship edge after years of inevitable defeats. The talent is not quite there, but they have done their best.
True or False?
Talent is needed, but obsessive desire is just as essential. Are they still willing and able to squeeze every ounce out of their talent, even after countless setbacks?
Yes or no?
Topflight success is a sacrifice of complacency and the painful willingness to accept media judgments and bitter defeats. Do they truly believe they will win Grand Slam titles?
Why not let them take the witness stand to make a statement?
The Case for Berdych
Berdych is playing some of the best tennis of his career. At the Australian Open, he outlasted resilient David Ferrer to reach the semifinals. He lost a tough four-setter to eventual champion Stanislas Wawrinka, the difference being that Wawrinka took two of three tiebreakers.
In February, he took Rotterdam and was up a set and break in the final against Roger Federer. From his perspective, it might have been a match he should have won. But closing the deal has not always been easy.
Berdych has recently called it a privilege to compete and win in this era, as reported by Gulf News:
No, I’m not unlucky. I would see it from the other way around. I get to see and face those guys and I think it’s really an honour to be part of that. I have had the opportunity to play all of them and I’ve beaten them all at least twice each.
Optimism. Belief. Perseverance. Berdych is mature and experienced enough to appreciate the opportunities he still has. He will always have a few flaws in his game. He doesn't move defensively as well as the greatest champions. His serve can hiccup in fickle weather. He could use more variety with pace and imaginative shots.
But he can still overpower anybody on the tour on his best days. He can win on all surfaces. And despite his weaknesses, declares that he looks forward to holding Grand Slam hardware:
"I’m still playing and I hope that one day it still could be a reality to win a Grand Slam," added in Gulf News, "and then I think it’s going to be worth even more."
Good for him. Then let his trial continue. As long as there is belief and effort, improvement and opportunities are possible.
No final verdict rendered at this time.
The Case for Tsonga
Tsonga has had more recent difficulties, tracing from his knee injury last Wimbledon. He was swept by Federer in the Australian Open fourth round, and needs more work to regain his best form. Is he still optimistic?
Tsonga insists that he and new coaches Nicolas Escude and Thierry Ascione have designs for him to get the No. 1 ranking, according to Live Tennis:
I really believed that it will be positive for me. I will not explain why exactly because we all have our reasons, but the thing is, with my new team, I really believe. [The World No. 1 is] the goal of every guy in the top 10 — you just want to be the best.
He's powerful but very athletic and nimble. He can attack the net, but can play too passively, choosing to trade groundstrokes with his backhand rather than use his unique strengths to attack his opponents.
Wimbledon would figure to be the ideal venue to finally win his Grand Slam title. He moves well on grass, has a big serve and has the kind of athletic reactions necessary to control the court. He was a semifinalist in 2011-12, and may be ready to win here, since the field is more wide open with the top two players in the world, Nadal and Djokovic, more vulnerable on grass.
The good news is that Tsonga is channeling his enthusiasm towards winning his first major, as he added in Live Tennis:
Roger [Federer] now — I don’t know what he’d dream about. I dream about my first major, he’s got already 17, so what does he dream about? Or even Rafa [Nadal] or Novak [Djokovic]. They win everything. But for me it’s even more exciting than for them because I [haven’t won] a major.
At least Tsonga is still chasing his dream. This matters.
Final verdict is still pending decision.
Tsonga or Berdych? Who has the upper hand to join the Grand Slam ranks and be remembered forever? Maybe neither or maybe both, but they are going to give every bit of effort. If so, there can be no regrets.