11/19/2013 1:00:00 PM
The man is nearly 35. He is currently ranked No. 44 in the world. He has celebrated many impressive triumphs over the course of a distinguished career, making the most of his opportunities, establishing himself as a top of the line professional who plays the game on his own assertive terms with unmistakable ferocity and deep determination. He has been a player of enduring importance.
This is not to suggest that Radek Stepanek is a future candidate for the International Tennis Hall of Game. He is not a player of that lofty stature. But the fact remains that this hard-edged individual has now achieved a substantial feat never realized by anyone else in the history of tennis. For two years in a row, he has come through to win the fifth and final match for his country in a live rubber. That is an extraordinary niche for this warrior from the Czech Republic, and one he will cherish forever. A year ago, Stepanek—playing at home—ousted the capable Nicolas Almagro of Spain to seal the 2012 Davis Cup for his nation. Over this past weekend, Stepanek replicated that feat, crushing Dusan Lajovic of Serbia 6-3, 6-1, 6-1 to give the Czech Republic another 3-2 win.
But the quest for the Czech Republic and Stepanek himself did not commence on such a high note. Stepanek had the unenviable task of opening the proceedings against none other than the Serbian No. 1 and world No. 2 Novak Djokovic. Here was Djokovic, fresh from capturing the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London, filled with confidence after securing 22 match victories in a row across the autumn, eager to impose his immense will and lead Serbia to a second Davis Cup triumph in four years. To be sure, Djokovic endured some anxious moments during a hotly contested first set with the versatile Stepanek, a player who can bide his time from the back of the court with both finesse and power before coming forward unhesitatingly to finish points off with extraordinary skill on the volley.
Djokovic had the upper hand in the early stages, breaking to go ahead 4-2, holding on from 15-40 with some excellent serving to make it 5-2. Stepanek kept competing earnestly, holding at love for 3-5, breaking Djokovic at 15 in the ninth game, holding on tenaciously from 0-30 to reach 5-5. He had collected three games in a row, winning 12 of 15 points in that spirited stretch. After serving an ace to close out the tenth game, Stepanek was brimming with prideful confidence. Yet Djokovic stepped up to an unexpected challenge with assurance. He held at 15 for 6-5 and then pursued another service break with full conviction. With Stepanek serving at 15-30 in the twelfth game, Djokovic concluded a stirring 27 stroke exchange by chasing down an angled drop volley from Stepanek that sat up invitingly. Djokovic rolled a forehand passing shot into the clear at an acute angle. On the following point, Stepanek served-and-volleyed. The return came back low down the middle, and Stepanek’s half volley was no problem for Djokovic. He drove his backhand passing shot for a clean winner. He had the set safely in hand, and there would be no halting his momentum.
At 1-1 in the second set, Djokovic was down 15-40, but he saved both break points with timely service winners, and eventually held on. From that juncture, Djokovic swept 16 of 18 points to close out the set commandingly, prevailing 6-1. Stepanek refused to surrender tamely, but Djokovic was not going to relinquish his authority. After the third set was locked at 4-4, Djokovic took eight of ten points to wrap up a comprehensive 7-5, 6-1, 6-4 victory and put Serbia out in front, 1-0.
That advantage evaporated rapidly. Out stepped world No. 7 and Czech Republic No. 1 Tomas Berdych to face world No. 117 Lajovic, and the gap between these two competitors was immense. Lajovic hits the ball well off both sides, has a stylish one-handed topspin backhand, and serves reasonably well. On the relatively slow indoor court, he became embroiled in some entertaining rallies with a vastly more experienced rival. The underdog played particularly well in the first half of the opening set, staying with Berdych until 3-3. In the seventh game, Berdych was behind 0-30, but he swiftly rectified the situation. Berdych did not miss a first serve for the rest of that game, releasing an unstoppable serve out wide in the deuce court, an ace down the T, another service winner down the T, and then an ace down the T. With those four swings of the racket, Berdych moved emphatically to 4-3.
Clearly, the 23-year-old Lajovic—who has never beaten a player ranked among the top fifty in the world—was shaken by that forceful stand from Berdych. He was up 30-0 in the eighth game before serving a pair of damaging double faults and then losing the next point. At 30-40, Berdych stepped into a second serve return and laced it impeccably down the line for a winner, taking a 5-3 lead. Serving for the set in the following game, Berdych underlined his supremacy, holding at love after serving an ace for 40-0. Early in the second set, Lajovic briefly found some competitive daylight. Berdych was serving at 0-1, 0-30, but once more the seasoned veteran served his way confidently out remote danger, winning four points in a row for 1-1.
A pattern had been established. When the biggest points were on the line, Berdych was never found wanting. He broke Lajovic for a 3-2 second set lead and made it count. In his last three service games of the set, Berdych marched on methodically. He took the set 6-4. The big man knew he was going to win. He took a 2-0 third set lead. But after Lajovic held in the third game, Berdych found himself down 0-30 again. He met that challenge impressively, taking four points in a row, including an ace out wide for 30-30. Serving at 3-2, Berdych drifted again into the 0-30 territory, but calmly collected four points in a row for 4-2.
It was as if Berdych needed to almost manufacture some mild difficulties for himself. At 4-3, he trailed 0-30 again after serving a double fault, but survived that challenge easily with another four point winning sequence. Lajovic simply could not hurt Berdych from the backcourt, no matter how good he looked in some of the rallies. Berdych broke again in the ninth game with some fine returns, closing out a 6-3, 6-4, 6-3 victory, lifting the Czech Republic into a 1-1 tie, setting the stage for the Saturday doubles confrontation that always seemed pivotal from the standpoint of both countries.
Berdych joined Stepanek for that battle. There was much speculation that Djokovic might join doubles specialist Nenad Zimonjic. Had Djokovic been in the doubles lineup, the feeling was that he might ignite the crowd, enable Zimonjic—a former world No. 1 in doubles with three Grand Slam men’s doubles championships to his credit—to flourish, and perhaps plant some seeds of self-doubt in Berdych and Stepanek, a tandem that had won 13 of their 14 outings together in Cup competition.
In the end, Djokovic understandably did not want to explore that venture. He was already exhausted after a debilitating autumn campaign, and he surely wanted to save his energy for the crucial singles match he would have on the last day against Berdych. Moreover, Djokovic is not an idle dreamer; he is a hard realist and a very practical man. Djokovic knows full well he has played doubles sparingly over the years, and that his presence might not have been enough to get a daunting job done. In my view, Djokovic appearing in the doubles would not have worked out well for him or his country. The partnership of Berdych and Stepanek is too strong and accomplished. They are two magnificent doubles players, particularly Stepanek, who was overwhelmingly the best player on the court. And so Ilija Bozoljac joined Zimonjic for the doubles.
With Stepanek returning ably from the deuce court and Berdych firing away off both flanks and producing scorching returns from the ad court, they broke a surprisingly vulnerable and apprehensive Zimonjic in the opening game of the match. Zimonjic double faulted at 30-15 and the Czech duo took it from there. Berdych-Stepanek had only one trying moment in the set, with Berdych serving at 4-2. He was pushed to deuce but then advanced to game point. Stepanek made an astonishing reflex backhand volley winner and lifted his team into a comfortable 5-2 lead.
The Czech Republic team broke Bozoljac at love for 5-2 before Stepanek held at love to seal the set. They had captured ten points in a row at the end of the set. That number rose to 13 when Zimonjic fell behind 0-40 in the opening game of the second set. He was soon broken at 15. Perhaps unduly worried about whether or not he could carry a partner who was plainly the weakest player on the court, Zimonjic was far from the upper level of his own game; he was often his own worst enemy, spraying returns out of court and serving with little consistency. Berdych and Stepanek were unbreakable. They dropped only five points in five service games, taking the set 6-4.
The Serbians raised their level considerably in the third set. With Stepanek serving at 2-3, Zimonjic-Bozoljac had a break point but Stepanek saved it with alertness and creativity. At 5-5, Zimonjic held on from 15-40. Inevitably, it all came down to a tie-break. The Serbians built a 3-1 lead but lost four points in a row and on to victory went the Czech Republic, 6-2, 6-4 7-6 (4). Fittingly, Stepanek—far and away the best player on the court, the man with the best hands at the net, the competitor with the finest doubles instincts—served it out from 5-4 in the tie-break with aplomb.
With the Czech Republic now ahead 2-1, Berdych took on Djokovic in the fourth match as play commenced on the last day. These two magnificent ball strikers put on an often dazzling display from the baseline. The court was not quick enough for either man to end points easily. Their exchanges were hard fought and well played from start to finish. In the end, Djokovic won because his ground game was marginally more consistent and his return of serve was decidedly better. He had beaten Berdych in 14 of 16 career head to head appointments, which gave the Serbian an extra layer of self-belief.
Berdych was living precariously all through the first set. He held on from 15-40 to reach 2-2 and from 0-40 in the eighth game, saving four more break points in that game. On the big points, whenever he was down, Berdych came up with the goods. At 4-5, Berdych saved three more break points, but a persistent Djokovic got the break at his next opportunity to take the set. The players are well aware that Djokovic has the best record ever among modern players after winning the opening set. His career record after being victorious in opening sets was an astounding 468-21. Only twice in all of 2013—against Juan Martin Del Potro at Indian Wells and versus Berdych at Rome—had Djokovic fallen after a first set triumph.
And yet, Berdych put up a stern fight in the second set of this Davis Cup encounter, and he probably should have won it. At 4-4, he had 15-40 on Djokovic’s serve but missed a backhand down the line that was not in the cards and then erred off the forehand. Djokovic held on. They went to a tie-break. Berdych was serving at 4-2 when he tamely sliced a backhand down the line into the net. Djokovic caught up to 4-4, but Berdych blasted a trademark backhand down the line to induce an error. He was serving at 5-4 with a chance to reach one set all and perhaps put his imprint on the match. But Djokovic made a marvelous backhand return on the stretch off a big first serve out wide. Berdych still ventured forward but punched a high backhand volley wide down the line. At 5-5, Berdych sent an inside-out backhand wide. A relieved Djokovic took control of the next point, coaxing Berdych into a backhand slice wide down the line.
Djokovic had somehow escaped, largely relying on Berdych’s big point ineptitude. Djokovic surged to a 6-4, 7-6 (5), 6-2 victory, placing Serbia back in a 2-2 tie. And so it was up to poor Lajovic to put Serbia across the finish line. Stepanek, however, was simply not going to let that happen. He did play an awfully tight opening game on serve, and Lajovic broke for a 1-0 lead. But Stepanek promptly retaliated, breaking back for 1-1. He sensed correctly that the match was entirely in his hands. He could attack when he wanted, serve-and-volley selectively but always when it counted, throw in the drop shot to keep Lajovic off balance, and spar effectively from the backcourt until he found the inevitable openings to move into the forecourt.
As was the case when he met Berdych, Lajovic could stay in some of the rallies for a while, but he had no method for ending those exchanges in his own favor. This matchup was even worse for Lajovic than the one against Berdych because Stepanek could approach the net almost at will. Stepanek broke for a 3-1 first set lead and never really looked back. At 4-2, he wasted a 40-0 lead and allowed Lajovic to make it back to deuce. But Stepanek advanced to game point for the fourth time and then applied the pressure with a crisp backhand volley crosscourt that provoked an errant lob. At 2-5, Lajovic somehow held on from 0-40, saving four set points as Stepanek inexplicably did not put the clamps down. But Stepanek held at love to close out the set 6-3.
Thereafter, it was no contest. Stepanek raced to a 4-0 second set lead and glided home 6-1. In the third set, Lajovic held for 1-1 but Stepanek swept five straight games from there, winning 20 of 26 points on the process. At 5-1, 40-0, triple match point in that third set, Stepanek closed up shop with an emblematic display, serving-and-volleying in utterly confident fashion. Lajovic could only loft a lob off the return, and Stepanek dispatched it for an overhead winner to complete a 6-3, 6-1, 6-1 triumph.
Was this victory comparable to the win Stepanek recorded a year ago in the Davis Cup Final against Almagro of Spain? That was a more impressive win in many ways because Almagro is a front line player who has spent plenty of time among the company of the top 20 in the world, and some spells among the top 10. But the fact remains that Stepanek was playing in another country in a critical Davis Cup contest, knowing that everyone expected him to take apart the inexperienced Lajovic. Stepanek had to keep the crowd quiet and pessimistic. He had to deal with the toughest assignment of them all: winning a fifth and decisive match with his country counting on him to be the victor. Only two other men in Davis Cup history had won two (or more) fifth and decisive rubbers since the inception of the international team championship back in 1900: Henri Cochet of France (1927, 1929 and 1931) and Great Britain’s Fred Perry (1933 and 1936).
Radek Stepanek is in exclusive company. He must be commended. He has every right to wear his success proudly.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here. |