Australian Open: Djokovic d. Stepanek

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It’s not often you see a player who has lost in straight sets receive a standing ovation for his efforts, but in this as in so many other things, the rules seem slightly different when it comes to Radek Stepanek. The veteran milked every ounce of entertainment from his two-and-a-half hours on Rod Laver Arena, but never really came close to pushing Novak Djokovic, who claimed his eighth win over the Czech in relaxed style, 6-4, 6-3, 7-5.

We all know what to expect from a match between these two by now: Stepanek’s persistent net-rushing against Djokovic’s precise baseline passing shots. Stepanek must serve-and-volley, or approach the net as quickly as possible, because he can’t hope to match Djokovic’s groundstrokes for any length of time. It makes for entertaining stuff, with Stepanek dashing forwards and pulling off sequences of high-quality volleys, but in the final analysis it’s like Errol Flynn fighting the Terminator (any one you like); there’s only going to be one winner.

If this particular encounter deviated from the script at all, it was only in the slightly subdued quality of Djokovic’s performance. The world No. 1 suffered throughout with a backhand slightly more deviant than usual. He was the first to have his serve seriously threatened, at 3-3 in the first set, and had his mid-rally ball not dropped dead over the net when Stepanek was well on top of the point, he might have been broken.

On the other hand, he very well might not, considering ease with which Djokovic raised his level when he had to. He pulled out his first laser-guided passing shots of the match and broke in straightforward fashion as Stepanek served to stay in the first set, hinting at the ruthlessness behind the geniality with which he appreciated Stepanek’s antics, and underlining the danger of reading too much into the manner in which someone playing the long game, with their eyes on next weekend, secures a straightforward win.

Djokovic’s best play came in the second set, in which Stepanek did very well to keep the deficit to a single break in the teeth of Djokovic’s strongest returning of the match, but the third set was a more uneven affair. After Stepanek held serve in a 17-minute, six-deuce game to open, and saved break points at 2-2 and 3-3, Djokovic’s level dropped, and it was his turn to have to save a break point after a short flurry of unforced errors at 3-4. The dip was momentary, however, and at 5-5 Djokovic found his accuracy from the baseline again, claiming the break by keeping Stepanek pinned back at the baseline. The Czech sneaked in one more sensational moment—a quick-fire exchange of reflex volleys at match point down—but on his second match point, Djokovic calmly rifled yet another perfect pass to leave Stepanek flailing and book a place in the last sixteen.

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