PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC: It has long since been proven that winning Davis Cup ties - even Davis Cup titles - without Rafael Nadal is not an impossibility for Spain, but it might just present a tall order for them on the occasion of the 100th final, against Czech Republic, in Prague this weekend.
Paradoxically, the absence of the greatest clay court player, possibly in the history of the game, in a clay court tie has never been an insurmountable problem for the five-time champions, such is their strength in depth, but a slick surface at the Czech capital’s O2 Arena could make for a rather different story. Czech Republic are hoping so and are no doubt much relieved that Nadal has continued his convalescence after injury.
The draw at Prague’s famous Municipal House on Thursday appeared to favour Spain – or at least that was the impression Alex Corretja, Spain’s captain, gave when it paired his No. 1 player David Ferrer with Radek Stepanek in the opening rubber.
He liked the idea of his most experienced player going first, but what he didn’t say was that, more importantly, it meant that - assuming Ferrer wins, of course - his No. 2 player Nicolas Almagro would be less inhibited against the world No. 5 Tomas Berdych in the second rubber.
Either way, there is little chance of a repetition of the 5-0 scoreline we saw between these same two sides in the 2009 final. In fact, it is almost too close to call. What we do know is that it will seriously test the versatility of the Spanish team and the stamina of the Czechs’ two-man team.
The Czechs have been flattering to deceive for the last five or six years in this competition, but if they are to realise their ambition of winning the title for the first time since Ivan Lendl single-handedly carried them to victory in 1980, they will have to safeguard the energy levels of their talisman, Stepanek.
No-one, therefore, would have been too surprised if Jaroslav Navratil, the Czech captain, had drafted in Lukas Rosol - the unknown who sensationally defeated Nadal at Wimbledon this summer - against Ferrer in the opening rubber and saved Stepanek for more important business on days two and three.
Some wags suggested that had Nadal been playing, that would have been a given. Whoever they choose, he is unlikely to beat the combative Ferrer in his present form so why risk needlessly exhausting Stepanek? At least, that’s the popular belief.
Of course, this flies in the face of normal Czech tactics as Navratil confirmed, but he admitted that the idea had crossed his mind. “I was little think about [playing] Lukas,” he said. “But still this is the finals. For my side, Radek is at the time for sure [the] better player, and also he's playing on Friday, important for the Saturday doubles. If you're playing singles, it's much better than just practising.”
Twelve months ago winning the doubles rubber would have been a near certainty for the hugely successful Berdych-Stepanek axis. Since then, however, Marcel Granollers and his good friend Marc Lopez have developed a formidable partnership, which reached fruition only a week ago in London when they beat the best by winning the Barclays ATP World Tour finals at that other O2 Arena.
Coincidentally, the only blot on the Czechs’ remarkable Davis Cup doubles record, spanning 15 ties, was in that 2009 final when they lost in straight sets to Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco and Granollers and Lopez are a better pair than them. So, perhaps, this is no time to start changing tack.
Three years ago Stepanek’s loss to Ferrer in a desperately close five-set second rubber left the Czechs without a prayer at 2-0 down after Nadal had beaten Berdych in the opening match. This time, however, their meeting is less critical.
The Czechs have targeted Almagro as the weak link in the Spanish team due to his less impressive indoor hard court form, which they hope will become evident in that fifth rubber against Stepanek, if not before.
No-one could blame their wily old campaigner, who will be 34 this month, if he hasn’t dreamed of this day, of securing the title before an adoring Prague audience that will fittingly include one man who knows exactly how it feels - Lendl. And for what it’s worth, he played in all three rubbers, but then he was only 20.
The full draw is listed below:
R1: Radek Stepanek (CZE) v David Ferrer (ESP)
R2: Tomas Berdych (CZE) v Nicolas Almagro (ESP)
R3: Ivo Minar / Lukas Rosol (CZE) v Marcel Granollers / Marc Lopez (ESP)
R4: Tomas Berdych (CZE) v David Ferrer (ESP)
R5: Radek Stepanek (CZE) v Nicolas Almagro (ESP)
Follow this tie as it happens: Live scores or Watch Live
Tomas Berdych (CZE) - 15/11/2012
David Ferrer (ESP) - 15/11/2012
Radek Stepanek (CZE) - 15/11/2012
Nicolas Almagro (ESP) - 15/11/2012
Captain Jaroslav Navratil (CZE) - 15/11/2012
Captain Alex Corretja (ESP) - 15/11/2012
Ivo Minar and Lukas Rosol (CZE) - 15/11/2012
Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez (ESP) - 15/11/2012