They say politicians only want to be associated with success. On that basis the wrong president was in the Belgrade Arena on Saturday.
The Serbian head of state, Boris Tadic, sat courtside hoping to see his nation take a significant step towards a first-ever Davis Cup by BNP Paribas final.
But he left knowing his impressive team needs to win both Sunday’s reverse singles, following a crushing defeat for Novak Djokovic and Nenad Zimonjic at the hands of the highly impressive Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek. The Czech president would probably have wished he were here.
Zimonjic fails to make impression
It may seem harsh to describe a four-set defeat as ‘crushing’, but after taking the first set, the Serbs were broken six times, as a world-class singles player failed to gel with a world-class doubles player.
Zimonjic had the worse game, but Djokovic was hardly enamoured with his own performance, which included smashing a racket in frustration at his ability to make any impression on the wall the Czechs put up on the other side of the net.
Zimonjic blamed Serbia’s defeat on “a lack of concentration” which led to “a couple of easy errors at the beginning of the second set that gave the Czech team the advantage, and after that it seems I couldn’t get back in the match”.
He added: “I was expecting a lot better from myself, I wasn’t returning well, and there were a lot of errors coming from my side. I kind of needed help, which meant I couldn’t give Novak help, but maybe it wasn’t a bad idea that he played today – he’s had some match time, which could help him tomorrow.”
For their part, the Czechs felt they were a better unit. “We stayed cool even when we were down,” said Stepanek. “The team spirit was much bigger on our side than on our opponents’, when we got our chance in the second set we didn’t let it get away, and we played some great tennis today.”
The Czechs certainly looked the more co-ordinated pair in the early games as Djokovic and Zimonjic worked the rust off their partnership.
But in the eighth game, some dogged defence from the back of the Serbian court forced a couple of crucial errors at the net from the Czechs, the Serbs broke the Berdych serve, and served out the first set. So far, so good for the home nation.
But that only unleashed a purple patch for the Czechs. They took three successive Zimonjic service games to go from a set down to 3-1 up in the third.
The 34-year-old Zimonjic was playing well below his world ranking of joint-third, while Berdych and Stepanek were clearly targeting Djokovic, and his failure to put away countless volleys was as much a factor in the away pair’s run of breaks as Zimonjic’s errors.
At the start of the fourth set, the Serbs looked to have steadied their ship, but in the third game, Djokovic was broken for the first time when he missed a backhand volley behind his serve, and smashed his racket on his chair, earning a warning and a fine.
But far from having a cathartic effect, neither he nor Zimonjic could hold serve again, the Czechs keeping up a very solid level of play to run out 36 61 64 61 winners.
All to play for on the final day
Although a blow to the home side, the result seems to keep open the chance of a live fifth rubber.
Djokovic has to be favoured to beat Berdych in the first reverse singles, given how the two have been playing in recent weeks, which would then leave the tie in the hands of Stepanek and Janko Tipsarevic, who are separated by just two ranking places.
Sunday evening in Belgrade could yet bring a sizzling denouement to this absorbing tie.