BELGRADE, Serbia—All the world's a stage, and the leading men made sure the opening act of this Davis Cup final stayed on script.
Novak Djokovic denied seven of eight break points he faced in dispatching Radek Stepanek, 7-5, 6-1, 6-4, to post his 23rd consecutive victory and stake Serbia to a 1-0 lead against defending Davis Cup champion Czech Republic. Then Czech No. 1 Tomas Berdych took to the court and snuffed out home hopes for an upset in sweeping world No. 117 Dusan Lajovic, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3, setting the stage for a crucial doubles match tomorrow.
The line-up from Thursday's draw, showing Serbia's Ilija Bozoljac and Nenad Zimonjic scheduled to face the Czech Republic’s Jan Hajek and Lukas Rosol, was still standing in the corner like a forgotten cue card as players conducted post-match press conferences today. Expect most of those roles to be re-cast as both teams view the doubles match as the pivotal point of the tie.
"Because we want to win, we have to nominate the best doubles team we have," acting Czech Republic captain Vladimir Safarik said after Berdych's sweep. "I don't want to say the names today but you can imagine what I am thinking about—that's all I'll say today."
Berdych, who walked into the press room while Lajovic was wrapping up his press conference in Serbian (players first conduct post-match pressers in English followed by their native language), looked relaxed signing a few autographs before addressing the plot developments.
"We both feel good after our singles," Berdych said. "It's still some time till tomorrow many things can change but if everything stays like it is now then we are ready to play when we need to."
It doesn't take a psychic to figure out that Berdych and Stepanek—who own a 13-1 Davis Cup doubles record together, including a straight-sets win over Bozoljac and Zimonjic in the 2012 quarterfinals, and a 3-6, 6-1, 6-4, 6-1 win over Djokovic and Zimonjic in the 2010 semifinals—will be the Czech starters tomorrow.
The question is, will Djokovic, who started this week defeating world No. 1 Rafael Nadal to successfully defend his ATP World Tour finals title in London, and is admittedly "exhausted," have enough mental and physical fuel to play three matches in three days?
Probably. Considering the stakes and circumstances, it's likely that Djokovic, who didn't expend much energy in wrapping up the opener in two hours and 10 minutes, will partner Zimonjic. Djokovic was non-committal when I asked him directly if he'll play doubles—"I have to see with the team after the second match so that’s all I have to say," he said after his win.
But with Janko Tipsarevic sidelined due to a heel injury, Viktor Troicki serving a 12-month suspension, and Lajovic fresh off his first live Davis Cup singles match, all signs point to Djokovic serving doubles duty. His subsequent comments suggest he's ready for the challenge.
"The Davis Cup final is not happening every year so maybe this is one of the very few historical opportunities we have to win the Davis Cup title at home in front of great crowd," said the Serb, whose last Davis Cup doubles win came in 2008. "So that’s already a huge motivation for me regardless of what kind of physical state—or state of mind—I am in. The fact is after such a long season I am exhausted but I’m finding my way of course to deliver my best when it’s needed."
Swirling spotlights, pounding drums, and the bleating sounds of dueling vuvuzelas from Serbian and Czech fans that began during pre-match introductions served as a reminder to the 15,000-strong fans inside Belgrade Arena that you don't just watch the Davis Cup final—you feel it.
When a few fans screamed while Stepanek's ball toss was in the air, chair umpire Enric Molina took action awarding Stepanek a first serve—and imploring the crowd to respect the rights of both players, which, for the most part, it did thereafter.
"When you play at home, you have 14,000 on your side; if you play away you have 14,000 against you," Stepanek said. "I think the ref did a great job."
Stepanek can be a tricky player because he can take the ball early, hits fairly flat, owns all-court skills, and he’s adept at figuring out what makes his opponent uncomfortable. Crowding the baseline when he could, the Czech used the drop shot to draw Djokovic forward at times and passed him with well-placed volleys, but the world No. 2 was quick off the mark and began reading the dropper as the match progressed.
Djokovic broke for 4-2 in the first set and fought off three break points to consolidate for 5-2, only to see Stepanek use his slice backhand to take the pace off and break back for 4-5. Undeterred, Djokovic won two of the longest exchanges of the match—a 25-shot rally, and a dazzling 26-shot rally he capped by running down a drop shot and angling a soft forehand winner for double set point. A Djokovic backhand pass sealed the opener in 56 minutes.
Djokovic’s fast feet and accurate serve were keys to the opening set. He served 85 percent and repelled nearly everything Stepanek threw at him.
"His defense from the back of the court is the best I've played against," Stepanek said. "He always came with such a precise serve on the important points."
Djokovic seized command in the early stages of the second set. Stepanek earned three break points in the third game, but Djokovic erased the first two with service winners and the third with an angled forehand. Twisting a wide serve to dig out a hard-fought hold for 2-1, Djokovic erupted with a “Come on!” That sparked a surge of 15 straight points as an empowered Djokovic began swinging with more authority, sweeping three consecutive love games.
Crushing a forehand winner down the line, Djokovic forged his second straight break and a 5-1 second-set lead. It took a Stepanek lob that dotted the back edge of the baseline to stop the bleeding, but that was a brief reprieve as Djokovic drilled a service winner to take a two-set lead after 88 minutes of play. He effectively wrapped things up by breaking for 5-4 in the third set, and when Stepanek's last lob strayed, Djokovic thrust both arms in the air while Serbian players sprang to their feet.
Those same players sustained their support for Lajovic, who needed all help he could get in his Davis Cup live rubber debut. The 23-year-old has a smooth one-handed backhand but requires more time to generate that stroke than his substantially more seasoned opponent, Tomas Berdych, needs on his two-hander. The seventh-ranked Czech hit harder, controlled the center of the court effectively and played the crucial points with more aggression.
Two mammoth returns from Berdych—a cross-court forehand and a crackling down-the-line backhand winner—gave him the first break and a 5-3 lead. Berdych served out the 35-minute opening set at love and never looked back.
"I saw I could play on the same level like him especially from the baseline," said Lajovic, ranked 110 spots lower than his adversary. "I think I had several opportunities where I had 0-30 and maybe a second serve. I was maybe feeling a little pressure this point is important and I didn’t play one point like I should I was playing very passive and I think this is the biggest thing I learned from this match. Players like Tomas, Top 10 players, won’t give you two chances if you don’t realize the first one."
Berdych may well get two chances at Djokovic—in doubles tomorrow and the first reverse singles on Sunday—and offered an amusing plan for defusing the six-time Grand Slam champion.
"Really we're talking about a guy in the best shape playing in the best form in front of his home crowd," Berdych said. "When you look at Novak how he's playing its very similar like when you play the PlayStation so the best way is just unplug it from the electricity and then maybe you have a chance."
Richard Pagliaro is covering the 2013 Davis Cup final for TENNIS.com. Read his piece about Novak Djokovic's contention with the World Anti-Doping Association, and its decision about countryman Viktor Troicki, here.