How often the formbook gets turned on its head in the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas! No-one would have been surprised at the start of the day to find this semifinal 1-1, but few would have reckoned on the results – or the fact that it took until eight o’clock in the evening for Serbia to have anything to cheer.
What should have been one of the highlights in Serbian tennis history looked for much of the day like becoming a nightmare. By lunchtime, the host nation was without its talisman, as Novak Djokovic withdrew from his opening day’s singles for medical reasons. By teatime, Djokovic’s replacement Viktor Troicki had been beaten in four sets by a revitalised Radek Stepanek, leaving the Czechs in the driving seat as they had the world No. 7 Tomas Berdych to parade in the second singles.
But before the dinner plates had been cleared, Janko Tipsarevic had defied the expectations and played a very clever match to frustrate an out-of-sorts Berdych, a result that leaves this semifinal finely poised, if not slightly favouring the home nation.
Djokovic, who only arrived from New York on Wednesday, looked sharp in practice on Thursday but told his team-mates he couldn’t be sure how he would feel on Friday morning. When he arrived at the Belgrade Arena, he reported a stomach complaint related to his lingering jetlag and fatigue following his US Open final on Monday might. After being examined by the tie’s neutral doctor, he was diagnosed with ‘acute gastroenteritis’ and was replaced by Troicki. But Djokovic says he expects to be considered for selection for the doubles if the Serbian team want him to partner Nenad Zimonjic.
Djokovic had full confidence in Troicki
Djokovic said in a Serbian television interview, conducted as Troicki and Stepanek warmed up, that he felt his withdrawal was no big deal, as he had full confidence in Troicki. That confidence seemed vindicated when the Serb broke in the opening game and had further chances to break in the opening set.
But Troicki’s inability to pull away from Stepanek was the writing on the wall. His big serve saw him take the first set, but by then Stepanek had worked out how to play him, and broke twice to take the second with some glorious all-court tennis. Troicki had three break points in the third set but Stepanek saved them all with ease and broke in the 10th game to take a 2-1 lead as the Serb looked to have no answer to Stepanek’s canny drop shots and lobs.
The Serb finally got his second break of the Czech serve in the sixth game of the fourth, and at 4-2 a fifth set was on the cards. But Stepanek broke straight back, his varied play seriously eroding Troicki’s confidence on the big points. So it was no surprise when the Serb hit a backhand wide on Stepanek’s first match point, giving Stepanek a 46 62 64 64 victory in a minute under three hours.
“I had a nervous start,” said Stepanek, “but since my comeback after a long injury it was definitely my best performance. Once you wear the national shirt, you feel the lion in your heart, you come up with the best you have, and I can be proud of myself today. I’m not a guy who’s going to shoot the other guy out of his pants with 100 aces, I’m an all-court player who uses his mind during the match, and I think I was smarter than him.”
Troicki said he warmed up with Djokovic but then around noon found he was going to play. “It was pretty weird,” he said. “I was focused, but it’s a different feeling from when you know you’re going to play.”
Tipsarevic played a great retrieving game
In many respects, Tipsarevic did to Berdych what Stepanek had done to Troicki. Using similar tactics to those that saw him beat Andy Roddick at the US Open, the Serb played a great retrieving game, and profited from Berdych missing countless forehands, normally his big weapon.
With Tipsarevic two sets up, the tie was cruising to a 1-1 scoreline, but then in the third set Berdych woke up. His big forehand began working, he broke Tipsarevic in the fourth game, and broke a second time to take the set 62. When Berdych broke to lead 3-1 in the fourth, Tipsarevic looked on the rocks, especially as he seemed unable to keep the ball away from the big Czech forehand. But a couple of inspired points in the fifth game saw him break straight back, and Berdych was lucky to escape from a break point at 5-5.
Eventually the set went into the tiebreak as the noise level reached its peak for the day. Tipsarevic opened up a 5-2 lead but Berdych pegged him back. Tipsarevic had his first match point on his own serve at 6-4, but missed his chance on indecision after delivering a great serve. But he forced Berdych into a forehand error on his second match point, as the Belgrade Arena went wild.
“It feels great to have a top ten victory at home with 15,000 people, it’s an unbelievable feeling,” said Tipsarevic of his 75 62 26 76(5) victory. “I can say this is one of my best Davis Cup matches. I beat Roddick in a night session at the US Open, but this one meant so much because we were down 0-1, and beating such a great player as Tomas in front of our home crowd means so much to me.”
Berdych rejected suggestions that he had lost because of a relative lack of matches since Wimbledon. “It’s the other way,” he said, “I’ve had a lot of tennis, I’m going nearly two seasons in a row. It’s cost me more and more energy with each match. Yes, Janko played well, but I gave him a lot of chances, so many mistakes from my side - it’s my fault, I just need to be better on the next day.”
Berdych is expected to team up with Stepanek in the doubles against Nenad Zimonjic partnering one of Djokovic, Troicki or Tipsarevic.