For a while there, David Ferrer looked like a man chasing his wind-driven fedora down the street. A guy trying to poke a bolt through a hole that he can’t see. A hipster struggling to get into a pair of freshly-laundered pipestem jeans, or jeggings.
Before the second set of the opening rubber of the 2012 Davis Cup final was over, Spain’s lead singles player and world No. 5 had been gifted no fewer than 20 break points by his opponent, the Czech Republic’s Radek Stepanek. But Ferrer had been able to capitalize and earn breaks on only of two of them—and one through no great play of his own, as it was a Stepanek double fault that gave the Spaniard his first break.
Still, it was hard to fault Ferrer. He was rarely in danger today, while Stepanek, buoyed by a home crowd and with the notorious Davis Cup nerves in play on both sides of the court, came up with numerous excellent shots and saves to keep the match close—if not quite as close as the final score in favor of Ferrer suggests: 6-3, 6-4, 6-4.
Making full use of the fast court (although not “incredibly fast” as some pundits suggested, thanks to ITF rules that limit court speed) in Prague’s O2 Arena, Stepanek played fine, often heroic attacking tennis—he won 37 of a whopping 64 forays to the net, for a 58 percent success rate. But a few key elements in the match-up and some problems in his execution ensured that Stepanek was fighting a rear-guard action all the way. It was a great demonstration of a player digging in his heels and refusing to yield to the inevitable.
The problem for Stepanek was that he served poorly, especially in the early going. He hovered around the 50 percent first-serve conversion rate for most of the first set, and finished at 56 percent. His forehand, always an assailable shot, couldn’t consistently keep him in rallies. And perhaps most important, Stepanek has a versatile backhand (both a one-handed slice and two-handed drive) but was reluctant to go down the line with it, no matter the variety. Given the extent to which Ferrer loves to sit back on his heels in his own backhand corner and dictate with his inside-out forehand, not having to worry about a Djokovic-esque down-the-line backhand blast surely made his life in this match much more comfortable.
Still, there was that pesky fedora. . .
Or, that pesky, unfamiliar attacking style. . .
In the first set, Stepanek started well but got into deep trouble in the sixth game, which he served. That game went on for a full 24 minutes, and featured seven break points and 11 deuces (and that wasn’t Rafael Nadal out there, bumping up his on-court time as if he were getting paid by the hour). Ferrer couldn’t convert any of the break chances, and when Stepanek held it appeared that he might have the momentum to win the set.
But after dropping the first point on his serve, Ferrer ripped off the next four, and suddenly the arm-weary, 33-year-old Czech found himself having to serve again. It was hardly surprising when he delivered three double faults and dropped serve to go down 3-5. By that point, Stepanek had five doubles; he would serve only one more, but that first flurry cost him disproportionately. Who cares if you throw in a double when you’re behind by two sets and a break?
Ferrer served out the first set and had two break chances in the opening game of the second set before converting on his third attempt. He made the break stick and almost added an insurance break when he had break points 16, 17, and 18 in the fifth game. But Stepanek held and—surprise, surprise—took advantage of a huge lapse of concentration by Ferrer to break for 3-3.
This would be Stepanek’s best (and last) chance to significantly alter the course of the match, and he hung in there for the next two games. In the ninth game, serving at 4-5, he saved break points Nos. 19 and 20, but couldn’t handle a Ferrer backhand service return winner on No. 21. Ahead 5-4, Ferrer banged out an ace on his third set point.
Given that Stepanek will be 34 later this month, and that Ferrer is the long-lost twin to the Energizer Bunny, it was not just unlikely but impossible that Stepanek recover and significantly extend the match. Ferrer went up an early break in the third set, and added an insurance break that came in handy when Stepanek broke him while down 2-5.
The Czech kept things undecided, if not necessarily interesting anymore, with a hold in the next game. But the inevitable came to pass in the next game when Ferrer forced a backhand volley error to end it.