On Sunday afternoon, Tomas Berdych walked onto the court to play the biggest match of his life: The Wimbledon finals against Rafael Nadal.
But there was something seriously wrong.
You see, the 24-year-old Czech walked on to the court behind a man carrying his racket bag. On it, Dunlop logos all over it. Inside only Head rackets.
Why the deception?
You see, Berdych still has an endorsement deal with Dunlop, but for some reason, at the beginning of the season, he left his Dunlop Aerogel 4D 200’s for a Head's Youtek Radical model.
It’s easy to blame Berdych, but he’s just one of the many players in the industry who aren’t playing with the racket they are paid to play with.
Because outside the top players, the marketing contracts aren’t big enough to risk not being comfortable with what's in their hands. And, I guess, some companies just make better rackets than others.
So a few things happen. Some players use old rackets from the brand they endorse and get them painted to look like the new rackets the company wants to market. Others use rackets from another brand and try to pass it off as the competitor or hope the buying public doesn't notice.
This has been going on for a long time. I almost got in a fight with Lleyton Hewitt over his use of an older racket at the 2004 US Open.
The story surrounding Berdych is unfortunate because his recent play now means he is one of the world’s top players. After his Wimbledon loss to Nadal, he is now ranked No. 8 in the world, ahead of the top American Andy Roddick.
It’s now an awkward situation for both companies. Head saw its biggest endorsers Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic — who Berdych actually beat in the semifinals — go down. If only they could tell the world that Berdych was using a Head racket. It was even worse for Dunlop. They are paying Berdych and can’t, in good faith, use him to market their product.
Berdych's agent Per Hjertquist did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did Kai Nitsche, head of Dunlop's racket sports division. Kevin Kempin, CEO and president of Head USA, said the company would have no comment.
For the most part, Berdych’s switch has been kept behind the scenes, among the niche tennis crowd who like to talk about this stuff and confirmed by stringers who fill these types of message boards.
But his rise to the top is leading to more noise. NBC didn’t specifically address the situation between the brands in its finals broadcast, though commentator John McEnroe did make a veiled reference at the top of the broadcast on Sunday.
"Something has gone on with his rackets, I don't know what it is," McEnroe said, as the players were warming up. "But he has finally found a comfort zone with it."
A Czech paper recently asked Berdych about the switch and he was surprisingly frank about what happened. He said that Dunlop gave him a new racket and he said he played “terrible” with it. So in January, he tried four or five rackets and arrived on the Youtek Radical.
Since the first tournament of the year, the Brisbane International, an Australian Open tune-up, Berdych has been using a Head. The Dunlop stencil is off the strings and no Head logos are easily in view, though close-up pictures reveal two Head logos inside the racket frame and a Head logo on the knob.
Berdych had been playing with Dunlop for his entire career. It's believed he last renewed his deal with the company in 2006.
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