As the Worm Turns: Radek Stepanek's drama-filled 12 months

Wednesday, November 13, 2013 /by
Stepanek's shirts, like his game, go against convention. (AP Photo)
Stepanek's shirts, like his game, go against convention. (AP Photo)

LONDON—On the eve of his 35th birthday, there is no mid-life crisis for Radek Stepanek. Or, it passed.

He is happy with new girlfriend Petra Kvitova and flourishing with his partner on court, Leander Paes, after breaking up with former pro Nicole Vaidisova and overcoming a career-threatening injury that might have, he said, permanently paralyzed him.

His fulfilled demeanor was plain to see leading into last week's ATP World Tour Finals.

A smile hardly ever eludes Stepanek, but he was grinning even more than usual in the player restaurant, feet resting comfortably on one of those sleek, minimalist, not-so-comfortable looking chairs now in vogue.    

“So much happened to me this year on and off the court,” Stepanek said. 

A casual glance at his performance wouldn’t support Stepanek’s simple statement—for the second straight season he played at the year-end championships in doubles and again will feature, barring unforeseen circumstances, in this week's Davis Cup final.

But between last November and this one, personal issues and the recurrence of a serious neck ailment derailed the man who must be considered one of the game’s showmen.   

Vaidisova watched from the stands in Prague 12 months ago, supporting her man, as Stepanek assumed the role of hero for the Eastern European nation. When he downed Nicolas Almagro in the fifth match of the Davis Cup final, it ended the Czech Republic’s 32-year title drought.

Rumors of a breakup soon emerged and the speculation eventually proved correct.

Stepanek’s divorce from the tall, blonde 24-year-old Vaidisova, TENNIS.com understands, is official. He has turned to the tall, blonde, 23-year-old Kvitova, making it a hat-trick of high-profile tennis romances. Recall, too, that Stepanek was once engaged to Martina Hingis.

“There were times before when our marriage didn’t work, but I was fighting until the end to make it work,” Stepanek said. “We didn’t find a way. I believe for both of us in the long run it was the best option.

“I didn’t want it to happen but it’s always better to be honest.”  

Turning serious when discussing his split from Vaidisova, Stepanek’s cheerfulness returned as he waxed lyrical about the 2011 Wimbledon champion. Kvitova rooted on Stepanek last Friday at The O2 arena in London but failed to prevent her boyfriend and Paes from being eliminated in the group stage.

The duo, according to Stepanek, has many things in common, including a strong bond with their families and growing up in small towns. Outwardly, Stepanek, in case you hadn’t guessed, is the extrovert of the pair.  

 “I found in Petra something very, very special,” Stepanek said. “She’s a very smart girl and very humble for a person who has already achieved so much in tennis.

“She has a big heart and when I see her parents, I kind of see my own parents. I’m so happy I found her, and it definitely changed my life.”  

A potentially life altering moment occurred for Stepanek at the start of the year, too.  

Still in “euphoria” after defeating Almagro—Stepanek showed me his forearm as proof he continues to get goose bumps when thinking about the match—he suffered an eye infection before his 2013 opener in Brisbane and had to withdraw from the event he captured in 2009. 

“I couldn’t see anything,” Stepanek said.

On antibiotics and without practicing, he nonetheless decided to compete in Sydney but felt a “crack” behind his neck when he played a shot in the first game of his second-round match against Julien Benneteau. Filled with anti-inflammatories, getting treatment, and with an MRI showing no damage, it was off to Melbourne and the season’s first Grand Slam.

Stepanek managed to battle past Viktor Troicki in four hours in the first round and eased past Feliciano Lopez prior to facing elimination at the hands of Novak Djokovic.

“I took the plane back the same night and in 48 hours I was in such incredible pain that I couldn’t sleep for three days,” said Stepanek. “I started to lose sensation in my hand and fingers, no power, no touch, no feel. It got even scarier.”

A battery of further tests revealed a dislocated disc in his neck, and he underwent surgery a day after the Australian Open final between Djokovic and Andy Murray.

“The doctor said if I would have just kept doing treatments it wouldn’t have helped at all and I could have been paralyzed the rest of my life,” he said.

Stepanek and the medical team hypothesized the injury stemmed from a similar complaint in 2006 that ruined his chances of competing in singles at the year-end championships. Whereas the initial injury happened “overnight,” the most recent version was gradual.

The surgery a success, Stepanek said he began practicing with a special cast on his neck, and against doctors orders, nine days later.

Despite what was expected to be a long layoff, Paes didn’t permanently switch partners and Stepanek was back playing in about two-and-a-half months in a Davis Cup series. They resumed their alliance during the grass-court swing in Eastbourne.  

“I just enjoy the brotherhood and camaraderie we have,” said the 40-year-old Paes. “He’s one of the real unique athletes in tennis and I’ve probably seen around five generations come and go. This one is special.

“I told my team that we were going to wait for Radek and motivate him and use our experience to get this boy back and because of that love, respect and unconditional support for each other, we’ll win Grand Slams.”

Paes was right.

Stepanek and Paes ended Bob and Mike Bryan’s hopes of achieving a calendar year Grand Slam by upsetting the twins in the U.S. Open semifinals. In the wake of the stunning performance there was no stopping Stepanek and Paes, and they crushed Alexander Peya and Bruno Soares in the finale.

Paes called Stepanek probably the most “intelligent” men’s doubles partner he has ever had, no small praise given the Indian has tallied almost a century of partners in a 22-year career.

“This year we’ve seen the lowest of lows and made it through,” said Paes.

Stepanek is the first to admit he was unprofessional when younger, but a turnaround spurred by mentor Petr Korda has seen the former amass nearly $10 million in prize money.

Feeling superior physically than he did 10 years ago, Stepanek—the only man to appear in the Top 10 in singles and doubles in the last decade, before Fernando Verdasco did so this week—could join Paes in becoming a 40-something on the circuit.

His immediate goal is to help the Czech Republic claim another Davis Cup, this time in Serbia. The way the draw is shaping up, it wouldn’t be a surprise to witness Stepanek lining up in another fifth match.

“If somebody would tell me after the surgery that when the year comes to an end I would win a Grand Slam title, will play at the World Tour Finals and get to the final of the Davis Cup, I would tell them they’re more than crazy,” Stepanek.

Crazier still would indeed be Stepanek clinching another Davis Cup on the final day. But in this eventful year, you wouldn’t dare put it past him.   

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