Could Czech fans have felt confident about their team’s Davis Cup fate resting with Radek Stepanek? The 33-year-old is best known for the belly-flopping post-match celebrations he once offered up, not that he ever got to show off The Worm all that often. He’s won only five singles titles in his long career, all at minor tournaments. One of the reasons for this limited success is obvious enough: Stepanek is the player that time forgot; he’s held onto a flying, whack-and-attack style that went out of fashion with the mullet.
But Spanish fans probably didn’t feel any better about having to rely on Nicolas Almagro. The 27-year-old Spaniard, ranked 11th in the world, has loads of talent but has never known quite what to do with it, especially in big matches. He’s reached just three major quarterfinals in his career, all at the French Open.
Old Man Stepanek, with his Mick Jagger lips and rock ’n’ roll showmanship, had to be considered the favorite coming into the match, for Almagro is a claycourt guy to his core and Prague’s O2 Arena has been playing like a bowling alley. Stepanek delivered in the decider, scoring a 6-4, 7-6 (0), 3-6, 6-3 victory to clinch the Davis Cup for the Czech Republic.
Of course, Davis Cup is as much about emotions and guts as it is about match ups. So it was no surprise that both players were tense and nervy early on. Stepanek clanked his groundstrokes repeatedly in his first service game. Almagro gave up two doubles faults in his. But both men held and settled in for the long haul.
Stepanek made the first move, going for outlandish winners from the baseline and picking volleys off his shoes. He earned the first set point at 4-5 with a brilliant series of checkerboard moves, sending Almagro sprinting to and fro at oblique angles until the Spaniard simply ran out of court. The Czech then nailed down the set with a thumping backhand service return that Almagro couldn’t handle. Stepanek marched off the court, fist held high, biceps and lips plumped to the bursting point.
It was clear how much this meant to the combatants: two second-tier players in the deciding rubber of a Davis Cup final. They both recognized that this match could be key to how they’ll be remembered in their sport -- or if they’ll be remembered.
True to the stakes, the match immediately proved highly entertaining, far more so than the David Ferrer-Tomas Berdych match that set it up. The difference early on was Stepanek’s variety: on a good day and up against a player outside the Top 10, he can make you believe serve-and-volley tennis really does still have a place in professional tennis. But most of all, he moved exceptionally well, hitting his forehand on the dead run with a muscular flick of the wrist, and scrambling for every shot. Almagro, on the other hand, sometimes looked like he was on Heathrow’s moving walkway, easing toward the ball with an odd, glassy-eyed detachment.
To be sure, Almagro’s sleepy countenance can be deceiving. After struggling to hold serve early in the second set, the Spaniard came alive with a whiplash down-the-line backhand winner. He turned the momentum by breaking Stepanek and then quickly holding for a 4-2 lead. Just like that, it no longer felt like a fair fight. Watching Almagro bang down huge serves and unleash that wicked one-handed backhand, you can only wonder why he hasn’t had more success on hard courts.
The thing is, as soon as anyone starts thinking such thoughts about Almagro, he starts missing shots by half a foot. Stepanek cleverly drew the Spaniard forward on a break point and then used a he-man forehand-backhand combination to level the match at 4-all.
The battle raged on into a tiebreak, but Stepanek was willing to leave more of himself out there, including skin and blood after diving for a volley. The Czech hit hard, flat groundstrokes that often skipped the net, and he carved angled volleys to within a breath of the lines. The intensity from across the net proved too much for Almagro. The Spaniard stepped back onto the moving walkway and watched the tiebreak pass him by, 7-0.
That should have been the end of Almagro. In any of the majors, it would have been the end of him. But this was Davis Cup, and Stepanek was playing his third best-of-five match in as many days. In the third set, Almagro hardly looked like a man on the ropes. He served big and hit out when he had to, and Stepanek let him do it. The set quickly went to the Spaniard, 6-3. Was Stepanek, looking increasingly bedraggled, suddenly in trouble?
Nope. He just wanted to make things a little more interesting. After scoring an early break, he continued to swoop forward, knocking off volleys straight out of a dog-eared copy of Rod Laver’s “228 Tennis Tips.” The Big Game is still a beautiful thing, and it can still rattle an opponent — especially a claycourt specialist on an indoor hard court. The mood became a little testy in the 4-2 game when partisans in the crowd decided to get into the line-calling business and Stepanek’s forehand started looking a little tight. But the Czech veteran held, pushing Almagro’s back right up against the wall. In Stepanek’s next service game, he smacked two big serves to reach match point. The end came with Almagro dropping a backhand into the net, giving the Czech Republic its first Davis Cup title as an independent country and Stepanek a secure place in tennis history books.