BELGRADE, SERBIA: Radek Stepanek wrote his name into the history books on Sunday after assuming hero status for the second-year running as Czech Republic defeated Serbia 3-2 in the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas Final in Belgrade.
Stepanek became just the third player in history to win two Davis Cup Final live fifth singles rubbers, and the first man ever to do so on consecutive occasions, after bypassing Serbian youngster Dusan Lajovic for the loss of just five games.
Having led the Czechs to a 3-2 triumph with victory over Nicolas Almagro in the fifth rubber of the 100th Final in Prague last year, 34-year-old Stepanek was quick to seize the opportunity when handed another chance of glory. The world No. 44 bossed his way past 23-year-old Lajovic 63 61 61 in an hour and 52 minutes to deliver the visiting nation its second successive Davis Cup crown.
Swarmed by his teammates after winning the decisive point, the Czech eventually broke away from the huddle to bound jubilantly around the court in front of the vociferous travelling Czech contingent.
"I don't think words can describe it," said Stepanek, when asked to sum up his emotions. "To defend this trophy means the world for us right now. For our country, waiting 32 years for a second title, now we are one of the five countries who have been able to defend a title.
“We made history today.”
Stepanek’s triumph saw Czech Republic become the first away team to win the Davis Cup since Spain prevailed in Argentina in 2008. It is also the first time an away team has won the title in a live fifth rubber since Mario Ancic won the decisive point for Croatia in Slovak Republic in 2005.
“It’s a dream,” said stand-in captain Vladimir Safarik. “It’s a privilege to be on this team. To have Tomas and Radek on my team is something special. It's amazing what they have achieved. It's probably one of the happiest moments in my life."
Safarik made special mention of regular Czech captain Jaroslav Navratil, who was unable to lead the team during the Final after being hospitalised with a pulmonary embolism earlier in the week.
"This title belongs to him," he said. "It was his year. He won in Switzerland, Kazakhstan and Prague. This really belongs to him. I am here as co-captain, lets put it that way."
The Czechs are worthy champions and their performance throughout the weekend was commendable, but the Serbian team were always going to be up against it following Friday’s news that Janko Tipsarevic would be unable to fill the second singles spot after failing to adequately shake off a heel injury. In the decisive rubber more than any other, his absence was painfully exposed.
Stepanek simply picked Lajovic apart, mixing spins and slice and trading punishing forehands and cute touches at the net in equal measure, but the encounter was a huge ask of a promising young player who hadn’t managed a Tour-level match win in 2013.
“You are either going to rise up and play your best tennis or the player in front of you is going to do the same thing,” reasoned Serbia captain Bogdan Obradovic. “In this moment Stepanek played maybe even the best tennis that he has played in his life. He played a perfect match.”
Serbia, led by Novak Djokovic, played its part in an entertaining Final and kept its hopes of a first title since 2010 alive courtesy of their incomparable world No. 2. With Serbia trailing 2-1 going into Sunday’s opening reverse singles rubber Djokovic put in a champion’s shift, nullifying Berdych’s power off the ground to square the tie at 2-2 following a battling 64 76(5) 62 triumph.
“I played great tennis but look, this win and the win two days ago will not make me happy if we don’t win the trophy,” said Djokovic immediately afterwards. “The last match is the most important one.”
That left Lajovic, who had only played one Davis Cup rubber before this weekend, and a dead one at that, with the intensely difficult task of trying to beat a man who had been in the situation of playing for the title only last year.
Lajovic appeared out of his depth from the get-go, shanking his first two service returns wildly off court. Though he would soon recover to score an immediate break of serve, that was as good as it got for the Serb.
"Right now I'm of course very disappointed," said Lajovic. "This match was not just a match in my personal career but a match for my team, for my nation, and now I feel really disappointed that I lost. I was trying to give my best.
"Obviously that wasn't enough today, but these three days have been one of the most exciting days of my career."
For Stepanek, meanwhile, the result also meant an individual place in history.
Only France’s Henri Cochet (1927, 1929, 1931) and Britain’s Fred Perry (1933, 1936) have won two Davis Cup Final live fifth singles rubbers before - Radek Stepanek now joins their illustrious company.
“That’s a beautiful stat, what can I say,” said Stepanek. “I’m indescribably happy. This is the highest [moment of my career]. To win Davis Cup is so far my biggest achievement.
"I got in Top 10 singles, Top 10 in doubles, I won two Grand Slams, played Masters [events] in singles and doubles. Winning two Davis Cups is just on top of it.”
Dusan Lajovic (SRB) - 17/11/2013
Captain Bogdan Obradovic (SRB) - 17/11/2013
Radek Stepanek (CZE) - 17/11/2013
Tomas Berdych (CZE) - 17/11/2013
Novak Djokovic (SRB) - 17/11/2013