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Steve Flink: Davis Cup Reflections

11/20/2012 3:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Watching the Czech Republic overcome Spain 3-2 in the 100th Davis Cup Final held in Prague’s 02 Arena, it occurred to me as I saw it all unfold on television that if David Ferrer could somehow have been permitted to represent his nation in one more singles match, if only he could have stepped on court for another crucial assignment, then his country would have secured the estimable Cup for the fourth time in five years. This indefatigable man knows no bounds in pursuit of his chief priorities. He is a magnificent competitor, a player with the heart of a lion, a fellow who wears his professionalism as honorably as anyone in the game. He recorded a pair of crucial singles triumphs for the Spanish contingent, and with a little help from his teammates Ferrer would have been the towering hero on the last weekend of tennis for the men in 2012.

But, in the end, Ferrer’s substantial exploits were not quite enough to propel Spain to another victory.  In the final analysis, the Czech Republic was a more balanced team than Spain. Their top players—Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek—each contributed to two triumphs. Berdych held back a persistent Nicolas Almagro in a five set opening day contest. Stepanek won the fifth and final match in four entertaining sets over Almagro. In between, the Stepanek-Berdych tandem took the pivotal doubles deservedly over Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez in four sets. Although both Berdych and Stepanek could not find a way to subdue the industrious and enterprising Ferrer, they were otherwise unstoppable. They shared the glory, and both men were nothing short of remarkable in contributing to the cause of their country. The Czech Republic took the Davis Cup for the first time since 1980, and the way they achieved their success was no mean feat. It was fitting that the members of that 1980 championship team—Ivan Lendl, Tomas Smid, Jan Kodes and Pavel Slozil—were all in the 02 Arena at Prague looking on. Jana Novotna was there, too, fervently supporting the home team.

Let’s look at it chronologically. It commenced last Friday, when Ferrer picked apart Stepanek with relentless speed and precision, winning the opening match 6-3, 6-4, 6-4.  That score sounds so uncomplicated, but the encounter was anything but ordinary. Stepanek is a genuine throwback to the good old days of attacking tennis. He moves forward unhesitatingly, regularly, with gusto and conviction. He anticipates brilliantly at the net, and volleys emphatically. His technique on both the forehand and backhand volleys is excellent. Stepanek seldom fails to sting his volleys, to punch them away with finality. He came at Ferrer with everything he had, and wisely refused to wage too much of the battle from the backcourt. Stepanek kept coming forward wherever and whenever there was an opening, but Ferrer’s counter-attacking was simply too precise and unerring, his returns too solid.

At 2-3 in the opening set, Stepanek survived a 24 minute game on his serve to reach 3-3 after eleven deuces. But Ferrer is unwavering. Serving at 3-4 and break point down, Stepanek double faulted, and the Spaniard served for the set in the ninth game. Ferrer held at love to take the set 6-3. In the second set, Ferrer opened up a 3-1, 0-40 lead, but a determined Stepanek captured three games in a row to move ahead 4-3 on serve.

A lesser man than Ferrer would have been perturbed, but the Spaniard answered by taking three games in a row for a two set lead. Serving for that second set at 5-4, Ferrer was down break point but he released a service winner, an ace, and another service winner for a crucial hold. Ferrer was up two breaks in the third set, serving for the match at 5-2. Once more, Stepanek refused to go away, closing the gap to 5-4. But, at 5-4, Ferrer served it out confidently. His straight set triumph was the product of superior match playing prowess. No matter how much pressure was applied by the fast charging Stepanek, Ferrer remained unruffled.

And so Spain was out in front 1-0, placing Berdych in a must win situation against the gifted Almagro. Berdych was always the more imposing player. While Almagro is an eye-catching shot maker with one of the game’s finest one-handed topspin backhands and one of the sport’s most underrated serves, Berdych largely was in charge of his own destiny because his flat ground strokes off both sides are so reliable, accurate and penetrating. The 27-year-old has an overpowering first serve and a highly effective second serve kicker. The 6’5” world No. 6 is a joy to watch when he is at the height of powers.

Meanwhile, the No. 11 ranked Almagro has become an increasingly improved competitor and a more diversified player. Despite being in a foreign land playing indoors against such a formidable adversary, Almagro was resilient in this meeting with Berdych, but could never quite gain the ascendancy. In the opening set, Berdych seized the initiative with Almagro serving at 3-4, 30-40. Berdych’s return was low and short. Almagro sent his forehand approach crosscourt, and Berdych drove a forehand pass majestically crosscourt for a winner. He soon served out the set, taking it 6-3. But Almagro found his range gradually off the ground and Berdych was hard pressed to maintain his edge.

With Berdych serving at 2-3, 30-40 in the second set, Almagro worked the angles imaginatively off the forehand, keeping Berdych off balance. The Spaniard created the opening for a scintillating topspin backhand crosscourt winner. He moved to 4-2 and took that set 6-3. It was one set all. But Berdych swiftly reasserted himself, breaking Almagro for a 2-0 third set lead on a double fault from the Spaniard. Berdych held all the way through that set and sealed it 6-3. He now had a two sets to one lead. Berdych kept firing away prodigiously from the baseline, building a 3-1 fourth set lead, reaching break point in the fifth game.

Had Berdych exploited that opportunity, the match would have been as good as over. But he netted a backhand down the line somewhat tamely. Almagro got back on serve, and the set proceeded to a tie-break. Almagro served an ace to put himself ahead 5-0 in that sequence, but Berdych retaliated by claiming the next three points. With Almagro serving at 5-3, Berdych drove a crackling flat backhand crosscourt, eliciting the short ball from the Spaniard. But Berdych apprehensively missed an easy backhand down the line to fall behind 6-3. Berdych claimed the next two points, but Almagro secured the set with an ace out wide, taking the tie-break 7-5.

On they went to an intriguing fifth and final set. In the opening game, Berdych precariously drifted to break point down, but saved it with a terrific high kicking serve to the backhand that was unmanageable for Almagro. Berdych saved a second break point with a service winner down the T and held for 1-0 after five strenuous deuces. They stayed on serve until the sixth game. At 2-3, however, Almagro was stymied again by the potency of the Berdych ground game. A searing backhand down the return from the big man at break point was more than Almagro could handle on the run.

Berdych had advanced to 4-2, but Almagro broke back in the seventh game as Berdych narrowly missed a forehand down the line. Almagro had a game point for 4-4 but Berdych unleashed a terrific forehand crosscourt to draw an error from the Spaniard. Another booming forehand crosscourt from Berdych broke down the weaker forehand wing of Almagro. Now at break point, Berdych clipped the edge of the sideline with a backhand crosscourt winner on the 20th stroke of a dazzling exchange. Almagro challenged the call, but to no avail.

Berdych served for the match at 5-3 and played that game with calculated aggression, holding at 15, emerging with a 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-3 win fashioned in four arduous hours. Berdych put the Czech Republic even at 1-1 in the series, and then joined Stepanek for the doubles. They dropped the first set of their collision against Granollers and Lopez. In the second game of the match, Stepanek double faulted at break point down. The Spaniards took that set 6-3. The Czech team led 3-1, 40-30 in the second set before Berdych was broken as the Spaniards kept him uncomfortable with returns at his feet. Spain rallied to 3-3. At 5-5, Stepanek fought off a break point on his serve, and then he and Berdych (who was returning beautifully in the ad court) broke Lopez in the twelfth game.

Spain had a fundamental structural problem. Lopez is very skilled off the ground and backs his serve up adeptly, but Granollers is glaringly vulnerable at the net. Time and again, he missed volleys from close range because his hands are not quick and his technique is suspect. At 5-6 in the third set, history repeated itself as Lopez was broken again. On set point, Berdych and Stepanek stationed themselves imposingly at the net, and Berdych put away a high backhand crosscourt volley with panache. Berdych has no natural feel on the low volley but he was buoyed by his partner, who was by far the best player on the court that afternoon. At 2-3 in the fourth set, Granollers was broken at love. The rest was merely a formality as the Czech Republic team prevailed 3-6, 7-5, 7-5, 6-3.

It was left to Ferrer to keep his nation alive on the final day, and the 5’9” dynamo did just that. To be sure, Berdych had endured some taxing physical tests the previous two days, playing five sets of singles on Friday, following up with a rigorous four sets of doubles on Saturday. But, in any case, even if he had been fresh, he might not have had an answer for the energetic Ferrer. Ferrer bolted to a 3-0 opening set lead, holding twice at love, breaking Berdych in the second game. Ferrer surged to 4-1. At 4-2, the Spaniard trailed 15-40 but a Berdych forehand clipped the net cord and allowed Ferrer time to set up shop. One inside out forehand created the chance for another, and the Spaniard skillfully directed his shot behind Berdych for a winner. Then Ferrer produced a sparkling backhand down the line winner. Berdych reached break point for the third time, but he was off target with an inside-out forehand. Ferrer held for 5-2 with an ace and then broke Berdych again to win the set convincingly, 6-2.

Ferrer was off and running. He did not stop. The Spaniard’s ball control and tactical acuity were fully evident. He did not allow Berdych to settle into any kind of stationary, big hitting groove. Berdych was almost always on the move as Ferrer surgically moved him from one side of the court to the other, hammering deep shots followed by shallow ones, masterfully taking control of rally after rally. Ferrer replicated his first set pattern, establishing a 3-0 second set lead. He lost only five points in five service games, winning the second set 6-3, charging to 4-2 in the third. Berdych was serving at break point down, seemingly beaten. But he produced an ace, held on for 3-4, broke Ferrer for 4-4, and then held at love for 5-4 with an ace and a service winner.

So Ferrer was serving to stay in the set, the kind of opening Berdych had been searching for the whole match. Ferrer was implacable, holding at love for 5-5, breaking Berdych in the eleventh game, and then holding at love to complete a richly deserved 6-2, 6-3, 7-5 victory. The serving statistics told a large part of the story: Ferrer won 78% of his first serve points while Berdych was at only 64% in that category. On second serve points, Ferrer was at a healthy 55% while Berdych finished at a disappointing 46%. Ferrer’s tenacity and sound play had lifted Spain back to 2-2, giving Almagro the chance to carry his team over the finish line. Stepanek, of course, had entirely different ideas.

Stepanek surely realized that his brand of attacking tennis was much better designed to stop Almagro than was the case when he took on Ferrer two days earlier. But Almagro was poised and ready for the critical fifth match as well. The early games were marked by hard fought deuce games but not a service break was to be found by either player. And then, suddenly yet unsurprisingly, Stepanek sensed his chance, and took it admirably. With Almagro serving at 4-5, 30-30, Stepanek approached on a flat forehand down the line, forcing an errant lob from the Spaniard. Now, at set point, Stepanek pounced, following his backhand down the line return in to provoke a forehand passing shot mistake from an understandably apprehensive Almagro.

Stepanek had the first set in hand, but Almagro raised his game decidedly. At 2-2 in the second set, down break point, Stepanek served-and-volleyed but the return came back low. Stepanek sent a first volley long. Almagro had the break, then held for 4-2 with his seventh ace of the match. But Stepanek was visibly feeding off the emotions of the highly charged audience. He held at love for 3-4, and broke for 4-4. Yet Almagro earned another break point at 4-4 and was one point away from serving for the set. Stepanek stuck with the serve-and-volley tactic, but Almagro’s down the line return was crisp and low. Stepanek was up to the task, making a superb low forehand first volley crosscourt that Almagro could not answer. Stepanek held for 5-4 and then had two set points in the following game. But an obstinate Almagro saved one set point with an un-returnable kick second serve into the body, and then cast aside another by forcing Stepanek into a passing shot error.

At 5-6, Almagro saved two more set points—the second with an ace—and worked his way assiduously into a tie-break. Stepanek could do no wrong in that sequence. He opened with a forehand volley winner. Almagro then made three forehand unforced errors in a row before netting a forehand passing shot. At 5-0, Stepanek made another textbook forehand volley winner, and then he closed the tie-break with a scorching backhand crosscourt winner. Stepanek had prevailed 7-0 in the tie-break to build a two set lead. It seemed entirely possible that Stepanek could win in straight sets, but he was broken at 2-3 in the third set. A buoyed Almagro served his eleventh and twelfth aces back to back to reach 5-2, and served out the set safely two games later.

Was a startling comeback in store for the Spaniard? The answer was forthcoming. Stepanek held at 15 for 1-0 in the fourth set, and then came at Almagro forcefully in the second game. At 15-30, Stepanek came through with a forehand winner down the line for double break point. Stepanek then laced an inside-out backhand return to induce a forehand error from Almagro. Stepanek had the break and then held at love. He had swept 12 of 14 points on his way to a 3-0 fourth set lead. That surge removed at least a layer of Almagro’s confidence, and perhaps even more.

Stepanek moved to 4-1, but he struggled to hold serve in the seventh game. Yet, on his fourth game point, he held for 5-2 with a service winner out wide. Serving for the match two games later, Stepanek was first rate. At 15-30, he released an ace and then connected with a service winner out wide. Having climbed to match point, Stepanek was not going to be brought down. Almagro netted a backhand. Stepanek won the single most important tennis match of his life, prevailing 6-4, 7-6 (0), 3-6, 6-3 to seal an exhilarating Davis Cup victory for his nation.

Stepanek will be 34 on November 27. He is the oldest player ever to win a deciding fifth rubber in Davis Cup Final history. In July of 2006, he cracked the top ten in the world. Across the years, he has collected five singles titles on the ATP World Tour. He has performed remarkably well all through a 17 year professional career. But it is hard to envision Stepanek ever replicating his extraordinary feat at Prague in sealing a Davis Cup triumph for a nation that had not won for 32 years. Meanwhile, Tomas Berdych can be just as proud of his contributions to the Czech Republic victory.  Stepanek and Berdych joined forces selflessly and were rewarded handsomely with one of the highest honors in tennis. They are to be commended.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.