PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC: So the Indian summer of Radek Stepanek’s career has held its warmth for the Czech until the very end – well, the end of 2012, that is. A Grand Slam champion, a Masters champion and now a Davis Cup by BNP Paribas champion – no, make that a Davis Cup hero.
Playing his third best-of-five-set match in three days, the near 34-year-old provided the 100th final with a fairytale finish as he won the fifth and final rubber against Spain’s Nicolas Almagro 64 76(0) 36 63. After 10-and-a-quarter hours on court he had presented Czech Republic with the Davis Cup just two weeks after their women had given them the Fed Cup.
And, appropriately, it was all done in front of the watery-eyed team of Ivan Lendl, Tomas Smid, Jan Kodes and Pavel Slozil, who in the guise of Czechoslovakia won this title in 1980, when two men – Lendl and Smid – like now mopped up all the points against Italy.
Here at the O2 Arena in Prague it was the turn of Spain, the new millenium’s most successful Davis Cup nation, to feel the force of the Czechs’ two-pronged attack of Stepanek and Berdych.
Emphatically denied their chance of this glory three years ago by the same opposition, they knew that this would probably be their last chance, given Stepanek’s advancing years which have seen him slip slowly down the singles rankings. However, his love affair with Davis Cup has been strangely enduring.
“I was dreaming about this my whole life,” said Stepanek, who became the first 30-year-old in a hundred years to win the final rubber of a Davis Cup final. “I cannot describe what I am feeling right now. I was playing very aggressively today, I didn’t want to leave anything behind. I wanted to be the one who was active and controlling the game. They [the team of 1980] have been our inspiration, our idols. They’re legends and now we’re joining them.”
When the Czech No. 1 Tomas Berdych was completely outplayed in straight sets by David Ferrer earlier in the day, the momentum seemed to have shifted back into Spain’s favour. But that made no allowances for Stepanek’s competitive nature and lust for glory nor, it has to be said, Almagro’s comparative inexperience.
Stepanek, the crafty old campaigner, had alluded to it the day before when he complimented Almagro on his performance against Berdych on day one when he was in the happy position of being able to swing away without fear.
A decisive fifth rubber in a Davis Cup final, as Stepanek quite rightly pointed out, was a completely different proposition. The man from Murcia had waited all his 27 years to hold centre stage, previously denied him by the excellence of Nadal and Ferrer, and now when it arrived it found him strangely passive.
There is only one way of playing Stepanek and that is to attack him and work him around the court, as Ferrer had done so brilliantly on the opening day. By sitting back, sitting well back a metre or two behind the baseline, as Almagro did, was to invite trouble and trouble is exactly what he got. Stepanek likes nothing more than to dictate the play and here he was given the freedom of the court in which to do so.
After both players had saved break points in their opening service games, Stepanek quickly asserted himself and when the next break point opportunity presented itself in the 10th game he grasped it with both hands to take the set.
He fell momentarily behind in the second set, but with Almagro strangely unwilling to step up in the court Stepanek was able to recover the break and then forge ahead. At 5-4, Stepanek saw two set points on the Almagro serve saved before he completely destroyed him 7-0 in the ensuing tiebreak.
This wasn’t how a match between the world No. 11 (Almagro) and world No. 37 (Stepanek) was supposed to unfold. However, with his first serve improving significantly and Stepanek’s energy levels dropping as he passed the three-hour mark, the Spaniard was able to take the third set. Sadly for Spain, it didn’t last.
Stepanek broke him early in the fourth set and suddenly there was a spring back in the Czech man’s step. Once he even hurled himself full length on the unforgiving surface to get back a forehand and when he eventually won the point even Almagro had to smile.
He had a match point at 5-3 up, thanks to three errant forehands from his opponent, only for Almagro to wriggle free, but when another presented itself in the next game he clinched it – or rather his opponent handed it to him with a lame backhand into the net that seemed to sum up his day.
When Ferrer beat Berdych to square the tie, Alex Corretja, Spain’s captain, must have been mightily pleased with himself that he had gone to such lengths to persuade the country’s nominal No. 2 to make himself available for the latter stages of this year’s competition.
Twelve months ago in Seville, Ferrer indicated that like Nadal he also would be unavailable to play in the Davis Cup in 2012. However, after talks between Corretja and Ferrer at the Australian Open in January, Ferrer returned in time for the quarterfinal against Austria, since when he had won six out of six rubbers.
He didn’t just beat Berdych, he demolished him - more easily than any world No. 5 has a right to despatch a world No. 6. The Czech was possibly exhausted by his efforts during the weekend; he had complained about low energy levels at the ATP World Tour Finals in London last week.
Ferrer regarded his 62 63 75 win in just two hours 25 minutes as one of the best performances of his career. That’s about as close as he gets to self-congratulation. It was also his 76th win of the year, one more than the world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, but when told that Berdych thought that he and Djokovic were the two best players in the world this autumn, he was genuinely embarrassed.
“Well, thanks to Tomas for his words, but I can't compare with Novak Djokovic,” he said coyly. “He is better than me.”
Mr Modesty may or may not be the best player, but this year Czech Republic has unquestionably been the best team.
Captain Jaroslav Navratil (CZE) - 18/11/2012
Radek Stepanek (CZE) - 18/11/2012
Nicolas Almagro (ESP) - 18/11/2012
Captain Alex Corretja (ESP) - 18/11/2012