Wow, what a weekend of Davis Cup drama! You can’t get any better than a live fifth rubber in the finals, especially when its spiced up with trash talk and controversy between two gritty, battle tested teams. Spain was looking for its 4th DC title in 5 years. The Czechs, having last taken the cup in 1980, were seeking vengeance for a brutal 0-5 drubbing in the 2009 finals in Barcelona, led by the same duo of Berdych and Stepanek but this time on home soil. Where to begin?
How about with Tomas Berdych, that tall, cold glass of Czech antifreeze? Everything about him inspires a shiver down the spine, starting with his chilly blue eyes. Add the “ice rink” fast surface of Prague’s O2 arena to his luge-quick game and Iceman demeanor and well, that’s about as intimidating a Davis Cup challenge as you can ask for (especially when Rafa on clay is not an option for the visiting team.)
And then there’s Radek Stepanek, Tomas’s partner in crime, the unseemly, funny looking old man that every young thug needs as backup. Think of it – these two men fought through Italy, Serbia, Argentina and Spain this season in an effort to bring Davis Cup glory to the Czech Republic, playing every live rubber along the way. Though they’re obviously proud to play for their flag, I still enjoy thinking of these Czech mates as Davis Cup mercenaries, two hard boiled buddies playing for pride and the pure joy of, well, messing with the competition. This weekend included the added sub plot of their sidekick Lukas Rosol, the guy who famously trounced Nadal at Wimbledon this year while showcasing a brand of Czech cool that had the befuddled Nadal resorting to a changeover body check during their match. What is it between the Spaniards and the Czechs, anyway? Alas, the Czech captain decided not to play Rosol as the ultimate wildcard this weekend - some thought he might do so in order to save the aging Stepanek’s energy.
The tie’s first day featured Ferrer vs. Stepanek and Berdych vs. Almagro. The first rubber was won handily (and predictably) by the Spaniard while the second match took considerably more time – 4 hours – and mental fortitude before Tomas Berdych came out the eventual victor with a 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-7(5), 6-3 scoreline. Berdych went into the rubber with a perfect record in Davis Cup and a 4-1 winning record over Almagro this season, including that mildly infamous Round of 16 win in Melbourne where Berdych refused to shake Almagro’s hand at the net. Despite having the upper hand (so to speak) over the Spaniard, I’m sure at some point during the 4th set in Prague, Berdych must have given this pre-final statement a second thought:
“I played Almagro many times this year and won most of them,” Berdych told reporters in Prague before the final started. “If he’s nominated, he will be the weak point on which we can build our victory. He’s missing that little something that distinguishes great players [from the rest]. He’s won smaller tournaments won this year. But he always has a chance if he plays.”
Almagro’s spot in the roster was even questioned by his teammate Feliciano Lopez:
“I saw myself playing (in the final),” world No. 40 Feliciano Lopez told AS.com. (via Tennis.com) “I don’t understand the decision, although I respect it. At a technical level it’s difficult to understand. Ask Berdych who he would have preferred not to have as an opponent. If anyone could beat Berdych on this court it’s me. The court is ideal for my game. But [Spanish captain Alex Corretja had to] play the doubles [team] after they won the ATP Finals.”
Lopez enjoys a 4-3 head-to-head over Berdych, has never lost to the Czech on a fast surface (via Tennis.com) and has played plenty of Davis Cup doubles. Almagro’s made his way up the rankings mostly through his proficiency on clay. But unless you’re Shamil Tarpischev, a Davis Cup Captain is not going to test the logic of playing the World No. 11 in singles and last weekend’s World Tour Finals champs in the doubles Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez.
Ah yes, the doubles, the wonderful momentum clincher smack dab in the middle of the Davis Cup festivities. The third rubber pitted Berdych and Stepanek against the aforementioned ATP World Tour Finals champs. The Czechs refused to be intimidated by their opponents’ recent accomplishments, perhaps bolstered by their own nearly flawless DC record and the fact that Stepanek, with Leander Paes, scored a win over the Spanish team in recent WTF round robin play. Berdych brushed off Marcel and Marc before the match: “You have to congratulate them (for winning the WTF), but now they are expected to do something different, so just tell them to hurry up and prepare.”
The Czechs won the match 3-6, 7-5, 7-5, 6-3, but it wasn’t easy. The Spaniards managed to hold out for almost three and a half hours, setting the table for indefatigable Ferrer to feast on the weary Berdych in Sunday’s fourth rubber. Ferrer scored his second straight sets victory of the weekend, beating Tomas 2-6 3-6 5-7.
Let’s take yet another moment to appreciate David Ferrer, Spain’s MVP and in many ways the man of the moment right now. In the past month or so, he’s won a trophy in Valencia and his first Masters title in Bercy, he narrowly missed a spot in the semis of the World Tour Finals and then went straight into Davis Cup battle where he won both of his rubbers. I know Novak has the WTF trophy and Roger nabbed the ATP’s Fan Favorite and Sportsmanship awards, but can we dig up one last trophy for David Ferrer, Man of the Year?
And now onto Davis Cup gold – the live fifth rubber between Almagro and Stepanek, battling for the Davis Cup title. This is perhaps the highest pressure situation any tennis player can experience in his career, and one that Stepanek seemed to look forward to from the beginning of the tie. He alluded to the prospect after Almagro almost beat Berdych on Friday, telling reporters:
“He played very well against Tomas but they already had a point in their locker room (Ferrer’s victory over Stepanek) so he played very freely,” he said. “When it comes to the last rubber it will be a completely different story.” (via DavisCup.com)
The Davis Cup home team usually writes the story, tragedy or triumph, and Stepanek controlled much of the plot in the ultimate match, taking out Almagro in four sets: 6-4, 7-6(0,) 3-6, 6-3.
“I was dreaming about this my whole life,” Stepanek said after the match. “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.”
Stepanek writes his own personal piece of history with this win – going down in the Davis Cup record books as the only thirty-something to have ever won a live fifth rubber in the Davis Cup final.
Berdych called the victory the “biggest moment of my career,” adding a “so far” to his statement that acknowledges the well-known trend of Davis Cup victory propelling highly talented, if slightly inconsistent, players to Major success in the following months. (Melbourne or bust!)
One last note of wonder this weekend – the astonishing fact that the Czech Republic has won all three of the sport’s major team competitions this year: the Hopman Cup, Fed Cup and Davis Cup.