The 2010 Davis Cup by BNP Paribas Final will be Serbia v France in the Belgrade Arena, following two dramatic and impressive wins for Serbia’s players. The nation that had not won a World Group tie until March of this year has Novak Djokovic and Janko Tipsarevic to thank for the biggest moment in its country’s tennis history alongside Djokovic’s Australian Open title of 2008 and Ana Ivanovic’s French Open title that same year.
Nothing has been straightforward for Serbia in this semifinal against the Czech Republic. The host nation had an awful first day, that only started to get better at eight o’clock on Monday night when Tipsarevic clawed his way back to victory against Tomas Berdych. The Serbs lost the doubles, and after an hour of the Djokovic-Berdych singles, things were again looking bleak for the hosts, as Berdych had rediscovered the form that took him to the Wimbledon final ten weeks ago.
The big-serving Czech, unrecognisable from the unconfident man who put in an error-strewn display against Tipsarevic on Friday, broke Djokovic in the seventh game, served out the first set, and was looking by far the stronger player into the second. He was winning his service games more comfortably than Djokovic.
Drama as Djokovic takes a tumble
But then drama struck midway through the second set. With Djokovic at 15-30 serving at 2-2, Berdych crunched a forehand which seemed certain to go for a winner. With the Czech fans already cheering, Djokovic made a miraculous recovery, scooping up a defensive forehand to drop the ball at Berdych’s feet. Berdych netted the volley, and the Serbs cheered. Djokovic suddenly punched the air – somewhat in the direction of the Czech fans – and the crowd went wild. The fuse had been lit.
Four points later Djokovic had held serve for 3-2, and the Belgrade Arena was on fire. As he ran out to receive at 2-3, the temperature was red-hot as 16,000 home fans got behind their hero. Perhaps because of the heat, Djokovic lunged for a Berdych smash that was pretty much a hopeless cause, stumbled and landed on his right knee. He ended up motionless on his right side in the corner of the playing area.
When he didn’t get up, Serbia’s captain Bogdan Obradovic and the umpire Cedric Mourier ran over to check him out. They called for the Serbian team physio. Suddenly, the spectacle that had just caught light was in danger of extinguishing itself right there. As Djokovic was helped to his chair to have his knee bandaged, Radek Stepanek came out of the locker room, mindful that the Czechs might be about to celebrate their passage to December’s final if Djokovic would have to retire.
But seven minutes after he had stumbled, the Serb took to the court with a strapping below his right knee, mirroring the strapping below Berdych’s left knee. So began the Serb’s own personal battle of wounded knee, and two things became immediately apparent. Djokovic could indeed still move, much to the relief of the crowd, and Berdych had lost his rhythm in the interruption.
In fact, looking at how well he played for the rest of the match, one can understand the Czechs’ implied suggestion – though never fully verbalised – that Djokovic had made more of his stumble than the contents of his knee warranted. In Djokovic’s defence, a lengthy break in momentum shouldn’t have suited him at that point, because he was getting the crowd activated and getting into the match. But there’s no doubt he profited more from the interruption. He broke for the first time to lead 5-3, and moments later served out the second set.
Speaking immediately after the match, Djokovic said the fall “energised” him. “It woke me up,” he said. “I didn’t feel great at the start of the match, Tomas was playing much better, and I needed something to happen, so maybe it was a sign.”
Djokovic carried his momentum into the third set, breaking Berdych twice to lead 4-1. The Czech then got one of the breaks back as Djokovic suffered his first breach of momentum since his injury time-out, but in the seventh game, he again had the crowd in his palm.
On break point to lead 5-2, Berdych seemed to have got the better of a long rally and played a neat angled drop volley. Djokovic raced up-court to retrieve it, another seemingly hopeless cause. This time he angled a one-handed backhand cross court beyond Berdych’s reach, to send the crowd screaming once more. But obviously not loud enough, for Djokovic went down on one knee, looked up at the massed ranks of spectators and put his hand to his ear, as if to say “I can’t hear you, shout louder!” It was pure theatre, and when he took the set 62 moments later, it was almost anticlimactic – the decisive moment had already passed.
The fourth set was much more open. Djokovic had his chances, but Berdych was playing better tennis than in the third set, and hung in. But at 4-4 he played a poor game, Djokovic broke, and there never seemed any doubt that he would serve out victory. When it came, he stood in the middle of the court with his arms aloft, soaking up the adulation of the ecstatic crowd.
Tipsarevic rode Djokovic's wave
Tipsarevic rode the wave of Djokovic’s win in an emphatic first set of the deciding match against Radek Stepanek, in which he stroked the ball faultlessly while Stepanek took seven games to get going. But the second set went with serve until the tiebreak, when Stepanek had the better chances.
He got the early minibreak, and while Tipsarevic clawed his way back, Radek Stepanek always looked the stronger. But the shootout was characterised by increasingly nervous rallies, with neither player trusting himself to hit through his groundstrokes. A tentative 26-stroke rally saw Stepanek to set point at 6-5, and a slightly mis-hit forehand that caught the line opened up the court for the Czech to win the set on a follow-up forehand. But he overhit it by the smallest of margins, and the tiebreak was level at 6-6.
An unreturnable serve from Tipsarevic gave Serbia set point at 7-6, and Tipsarevic gambled by charging the second serve to hit a clean backhand winner down the line to claim the breaker 8-6.
Stepanek seemed to be a spent force, as Tipsarevic won the first four games of the third. The Serb had a point to lead 5-1, but missed it, and when Stepanek got one of the breaks back, the match was back on a knife-edge. At 5-4 40-0, Serbia had three match points. With Stepanek stroking the ball pacelessly back, Tipsarevic made two forehand errors, but on his third match point, he was relieved to see a forehand go wide, and he sank to the ground as the entire Serb team raced on to court to celebrate.
The Serbs’ victory confirms the venue for the final, which will be the Belgrade Arena – it had already been reserved for a home final in case Serbia and France won. And that is exactly what has happened, albeit by two very different routes.