Berdych seeks to end Spain's reign in singles

Saturday, November 17, 2012 /by

On a day dedicated to doubles, it was singles stars that shined. The semi-makeshift Czech team of Radek Stepanek and Tomas Berdych—hardly a regular team on tour, but they’re often paired in Davis Cup and are 3-0 in this year’s competition—defeated Spain’s Marc Lopez and Marcel Granollers, 3-6, 7-5, 7-5, 6-3. The win was Berdych’s second in less than 24 hours, and leaves the Czech Republic one point shy of claiming its first Davis Cup since 1980.

Doubles defenders might want to turn away now. Consider: Lopez and Granollers were the doubles champions at last week’s ATP World Tour Finals, and Stepanek and Berdych played singles matches yesterday—the latter going five sets and almost four hours. Yet it was the established duo that cooled off by the end, and the wearier side that prevailed. Kudos must go to Berdych and Stepanek for their play, but also to a strong crowd in Prague, pulling its weight like any title-aspiring fan base tends to do.

A two-game sequence at the end of the second set was perhaps the pivotal moment in today’s match. If Spain reached the confines of a tiebreaker and ended up taking a two-set lead, it’s likely that we’re looking at the score of this tie reversed. But the defending Davis Cup champion failed to convert a break point at 5-5, and then failed to save one in the next game, with no room for error. Of course, this was the fourth set point Spain was required to ward off, having already saved three from 0-40 down. But at deuce, Granollers—who probably earned the “weak link” award (presented by Tomas Berdych) for his play today—botched a routine volley to give the Czechs another chance to level the match. Stepanek, an extremely proficient player in the front court, showed Granollers how it was done on the next point, striking a volley winner for the set.

After the third set, in which the Czech Republic again broke while up 6-5, the fourth set was a letdown, as if Spain had accepted its fate. Granollers and Lopez will watch as Berdych, playing his third match in three days and third in a row in this tie, faces David Ferrer. If Berdych wins, the title goes to the Czechs. If Ferrer wins, the tie goes to a deciding fifth rubber, scheduled to be Stepanek versus Nicolas Almagro. It’s highly unlikely that match-up would change, with such a chasm between Stepanek and the Czech Republic’s best alterative (Lukas Rosol, the man who upset Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon), and Almagro’s inspired play on Friday.

I attended last year’s Davis Cup final in Seville, and in that tie the doubles point also went to Spain’s opponent (in that case, Argentina). Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez, who played doubles for Spain in the 2011 title match, played abysmal tennis, and the momentum Argentina generated on Saturday tangibly translated to Sunday’s opening rubber, a lopsided one on paper: Juan Martin del Potro versus Rafael Nadal (remember, the tie was held on clay). Del Potro won the first set convincingly, and probably should have taken Nadal to five sets.

Keep that carryover effect in mind when considering Sunday morning’s match. Berdych must be drained, and Ferrer is the worst kind of player a tired body could face. But with the finish line within reach, and a Cup-starving crowd to play for, fatigue should be less an issue than usual. In Berdych’s situation—up 2-1, instead of being down 2-1 and facing a must-win match—I think the fans serve more as motivation than pressure. We’ll see if that’s actually the case.

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