BELGRADE, Serbia—With most of the 15,000 fans on hand celebrating your every error, playing the decisive match of a Davis Cup final on foreign soil can make even the most experienced players look as comfortable as prey cornered in a lion’s den.
When Novak Djokovic swept Tomas Berdych, 6-4, 7-6 (5), 6-2, earlier today to score his 24th consecutive victory and level this year’s Davis Cup final at 2-2, the eruption from the Serbian faithful rose to ear-splitting levels.
The Czech Republic faced the furor by unleashing its lion.
Wearing his lucky lion on the front of his blue shirt, Radek Stepanek carried the Czechs on his back. Broken in a nervous opening game, Stepanek settled down and spent the rest of the match mauling Dusan Lajovic with touch and guile, 6-3, 6-1, 6-1, to deliver the Davis Cup championship to the Czech Republic for the second straight year.
Slamming a sky-hook overhead to seal the match, Stepanek raised his arms in the air and then bounced over to the bench, summoning his teammates to join him in a celebratory swarm on the court. Already the oldest man to win a live fifth rubber in the final, the 34-year-old became the first man in the 101-year history of the Davis Cup final to clinch decisive matches in successive years.
“It’s very difficult to find the right words for the emotions I’m going through right now to [win] it twice in a row,” said Stepanek, who joins Henri Cochet and Fred Perry as only the third man to win two live fifth rubbers in a Davis Cup final. “I was really looking forward to it. It was a completely different experience than the last year. I was very focused on what I wanted to do on court. I know the pressure was very big again. There was a lot to play for. And we made history for our country today.”
The second-ranked Djokovic tried to help the Serbs repeat recent history: When Serbia won the 2010 Davis Cup in Belgrade, it rallied from 1-2 deficits on the final day in both its semifinal victory over the Czechs and in the final against France. Djokovic carried a 14-2 career record over Berdych onto court, including a 12-0 mark on his hard courts, and he went to work immediately, earning break points in the fourth and eighth games.
The cumulative pressure of Djokovic’s penetrating returns finally turned a fissure into a full blown crack in the 10th game. Berdych hung tough in fighting off three set points—he had denied nine break points by then—but a backhand error gave Djokovic a fourth set point. Racing up to a net-cord, Djokovic buried a backhand winner, then erupted with a primal scream and furious double fist pump, sealing the 59-minute opener without facing a break point.
Elite players often exhibit anticipation; Djokovic plays with prescience.
“I would point to one thing that I think is the best part of his game, that he has one skill that is very unique: He really can read the game,” Berdych said. “When you have that really big skill it's amazing and he's proving it.”
Tension spiked in the second-set tiebreaker as Djokovic sailed a forehand beyond the baseline and bounced his racquet off the court in frustration, handing Berdych the mini-break and a 5-4 lead. He also incurred a racquet abuse warning in the process.
Serving for the set, Berdych was two points from leveling, but would get no closer. The man who had volleyed with such confidence in the doubles match on Saturday blew a high backhand volley a few feet from net, then narrowly missed the sideline again, giving Djokovic set point. In the ensuing 20-shot rally, Berdych slid a slice backhand deep; the crowd erupted and Djokovic twirled his racquet above his head like a drum major, cupping his hand against his ear in exhorting the faithful with a “let me hear more noise” gesture.
Asked if he offered any advice for Lajovic before he stepped on court to play the most monumental match of his career, Djokovic suggested that critical moments demand action more than words.
“It’s difficult to say [something] that can significantly change. You can give him advice and guidelines how he can emotionally and mentally handle this kind of pressure and situation,” Djokovic said after his win. “Everything is on him, basically. He has to do it. He is the one that hopefully can find the best game and can be patient and in the end prevail.”
When Lajovic broke to open the match, the crowd exploded, chanting, banging on drums, and blaring horns in urging the underdog on. But Stepanek played with buzz-kill efficiency in reeling off four consecutive games to seize command.
Stepanek’s all-court acumen and vast edge in experience were evident against the 23-year-old Lajovic, who had the unenviable task of trying to fulfill a nation’s hopes in just his third career Davis Cup match. The reigning U.S. Open doubles champion repeatedly attacked behind soft drop shots and flat drives. The Czech won 40 of 47 trips to the net, including 11 of 12 in the first set, deadening a forehand dropper to convert his fifth set point and take the opener after 51 minutes of play.
The 117th-ranked Lajovic possesses a smooth one-handed backhand, but repeatedly found himself stretched out, trying to scrape passing shots from obscure positions on the court while operating beneath suffocating pressure. Stepanek opened the second set on a four-game run that left Lajovic looking overwhelmed and already out of answers.
“I couldn’t predict Stepanek’s game and I think that was his biggest advantage in this match. I was fighting until my last breath, which obviously wasn’t enough," Lajovic said. “He’s very good on the net, he’s very good on the volleys and it was really hard for me to pass him especially from positions running wide and being unbalanced.”
On the surface, a man who is 10 days away from his 35th birthday, plays flat shots that recall the Tilden era, and hits his forehand in such an old-school style you wonder if Aristotle was his first coach might seem downright toothless in giving up a decade of age in today’s high-octane topspin game. Even his lucky lion shirt has been the source of ridicule for some commentators and fans, who see it as a cheesy affectation, but Stepanek calls it a symbol of his national pride.
“That shirt brought me luck and is giving me kind of my inside power because I always want to fight like a lion and it’s a Czech symbol so it means a lot to me,” he said.
Stepanek may look like a quirky character, but the world No. 44 competed with ferocity throughout the weekend, partnering Berdych to win the crucial doubles point yesterday before clinching it today. All this from a man who underwent surgery for a dislocated disc in his neck last January—and injury that left him questioning his competitive future.
“If somebody would tell me a week after my surgery I would be sitting here winning the fifth rubber in a Davis Cup final, I would be laughing at him,” Stepanek said. “I want to play as long as I can, as long as my body holds and I’m enjoying every minute of it.”
Some wounds never really heal. And while both teams—and the fans who stuck around for the trophy ceremony—were gracious in the afterglow as the gold confetti showered the ecstatic players, Serbian captain Bogdan Obradovic, who was diplomatic throughout the weekend, couldn’t resist one parting shot at Stepanek, an adversary who is skilled at annoying the opposition with his words and style. He angered Obradovic, both for his infamous post-match handshake after losing a five-set duel to Janko Tipsarevic in Prague last year and for stating the Serbs “left the Ferrari in the garage” by not starting Djokovic in the crucial doubles match on Saturday.
“You know what Radek Stepanek did do in Prague doing so many bad and nasty things and still he was the one who tried to make some pressure during this match complaining for whistling during the serves,” Obradovic said. “And I know what we experienced in Prague. I think we are a very great team and the people who live in Serbia are more educated for tennis; we have a higher culture than they have because they didn’t say even one bad word of how he behaved in Prague, which for me, was a disaster.”
Stepanek, who is Djokovic's friend and sometime practice partner, stood by his statement today.
"I said it because I meant he was the best player in the world and to not play him [in doubles], it surprised me," Stepanek said.
Leave it to Stepanek, a player teammates love and some opponents love to loathe, to earn the last word this weekend. Before leaving the court, he opened his arms toward the Czech fans who were still bouncing up and down in the stands in symbolic embrace sharing a historic victory: The Czech Republic joined Spain, Sweden, Germany, and the United States as the fifth nation to successfully defend the Davis Cup since the inception of the World Group in 1981.
Stepanek gave the fans reason to roar.
“I love to play Davis Cup from the first moment; it’s a very unique competition with so much history,” Stepanek said. “The inspiration came when I was a kid. I saw the TV from 1980 when the [Czech] team won it for the first time. These pictures I had in my head my whole life and now we’re sitting here and we achieved even more than them—we defended the title. We became legends today.”