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10 February 2012

Czechs take control in Ostrava



  • Lee Goodall

Photo: Ray GiubiloRadek Stepanek (CZE)

OSTRAVA, CZECH REPUBLIC: Czech captain Jaroslav Navratil will sleep easy on Friday night. With a commanding 2-0 lead in their first round tie against visitors Italy after a successful opening day’s play in Ostrava on Friday, the Czech squad could now be forgiven for looking forward to hosting either Serbia or Sweden in the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas World Group quarterfinals in April.

It certainly wasn’t plain sailing for the home side, however. A hard-fought four-set victory for Czech No. 1 Tomas Berdych over an inspired Simone Bolelli followed a roller-coaster five-set success for Radek Stepanek against Andreas Seppi which meant a stressful day for Navratil on the captain’s courtside bench.

In fact, Navratil’s problems began long before the first ball was even struck. At 5am on Friday, Stepanek had woken with a fever and quickly summoned the team doctor to his hotel room in a bid to recover in time for his scheduled 4pm start.

With medicine administered, Stepanek slept soundly until just after lunchtime before producing what must surely go down as one of his gutsiest Davis Cup performances ever to claw his way past Seppi 46 64 63 36 63 after 3 hours and 50 minutes on court.

“During some long points, when my heart-rate got up, I felt like there was no gas in the tank,” Stepanek explained afterwards. “I told myself to fight for every point. My crowd really helped me. We have a very special relationship with them.”

The performance was all the more remarkable given the Czech, at 33, was the oldest of all 32 players contesting World Group singles matches around the globe on Friday. But Stepanek is made of stern stuff and the world No. 30, who recently won the Australian Open doubles crown, used intelligent changes of pace, kept the ball low with his tricky sliced backhand and consistently put Seppi under pressure with profitable adventures into the net to eventually record the 21st Davis Cup victory of his career.

After splitting the opening two sets, if anything, it was world No .42 Seppi who appeared the more relaxed and confident at the beginning of the fifth. Few love a battle like Stepanek though, and a break of serve early in the decider proved decisive.

“You never know which shot he’s going to come up with,” Seppi revealed afterwards. “He can serve and volley, a very good backhand, also slice - he has a lot of options.”

After Stepanek had shredded the nerves of the 7,500 fans inside the impressive CEZ Arena, world No. 7 Berdych was expected to breeze through his meeting against a player 128 places below him in the rankings.

But Davis Cup is a peculiar beast, and Bolelli has enjoyed considerable success against the 2010 Wimbledon finalist in the past, beating him the last two times they had met. Thanks to some ferocious hitting, the Italian went toe-to-toe with his opponent for the best part of two hours before Berdych finally shook off his challenge to complete a 63 46 75 62 victory.

Ultimately, the contest boiled down to a tense passage of play at the end of the third. It was Berdych who raised his game when it mattered to break at 5-5 and moments later served out the set. From there, the Czech No. 1 cruised through the fourth to complete a profitable, but hard-fought, opening day for Navratil and his men.

Afterwards Berdych admitted that during the third set he was starting to get worried. “It was difficult, but I expected it,” Berdych said. “He belongs higher in the rankings so I was happy to finish in four sets.

“My mind started going into the past a bit to last year when I was having the same troubles with Kazakhstan. But it was only a quick memory!”

Despite the Czechs going into the first day as heavy favourites, Navratil said he never expected the first two rubbers to be straightforward.

“For sure it’s never easy - we saw that today,” he said. “Those were two very close matches. I’m very happy that we have a lead of 2-0 on Friday evening. The first match was very important.”

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Captain Jaroslav Navratil (CZE) - 10/02/2012

Tomas Berdych (CZE) - 10/02/2012

Simone Bolelli (ITA) - 10/02/2012

Andreas Seppi (ITA) - 10/02/2012

Radek Stepanek (CZE) - 10/02/2012

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    CEZ Arena, Ostrava, Czech Republic

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    Lee Goodall

    Lee is a former British junior national champion who now covers international men’s and women’s tennis for a variety of media as a freelance writer, commentator and producer. He is the editor of the London-based Tennishead magazine, commentates on the ATP World Tour for international television and also works at ATP and WTA events as a TV producer.





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