Stepping Up: Czech Republic one win away from defending Davis Cup

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BELGRADE, Serbia—Thousands of Serbian fans smacked thundersticks together, chanting “SER-BIA! SER-BIA!” in unison. The smaller, but nearly equally vocal Czech contingent responded with rhythmic chants and claps to the tune of a bearded horn player (wearing a long blonde wig) blaring, “If You’re Happy and You Know it Clap Your Hands.”

The Belgrade Arena was rocking so loudly at the start of today’s doubles match, they could have staged a heavy metal concert in the hallway and you probably wouldn’t have heard a note court-side.

Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek stepped into this tempest of sound and silenced Serbia’s Ilija Bozoljac and Nenad Zimonjic, scoring a 6-2, 6-4, 7-6 (4) victory in the crucial doubles tie to stake the Czech Republic to a 2-1 lead in the Davis Cup final.

The Czech Republic’s two-man team put the nation one win away from successfully defending the Davis Cup championship heading into tomorrow’s reverse singles.

“Honestly saying I think it’s one of the best doubles matches we played together today,” said Stepanek, who owns a 14-1 Davis Cup doubles record partnering Berdych. “At the end of the day it’s all about winning the point for our team and that’s what we did today. We have to stay very humble and stay focused for tomorrow.”

Given the magnitude of today’s match, a pairing of world No. 2 Novak Djokovic with former world No. 1 doubles player Zimonjic seemed to be Serbia’s best shot for victory. Serbian captain Bogdan Obradovic was diplomatic saying the decision to start Bozoljac came after a team meeting.

“Novak played so many matches during the past couple of months, I spoke with him and Nenad and Janko [Tipsarevic] and the rest of the team and we discussed a lot is he ready or not ready to play three days in a row,” Obradovic said. “After discussing all of the options and listening to Novak of course because he’s the one telling me is he ready and does he have enough energy to play the three days, I made the decision to play Ilija together with Nenad… I know how much it means for Nenad to be on the court together with Novak and I know in that case it’s gonna be huge pressure on the Czech team because Novak is returning good and playing very good tennis. The only thing I can say now in this moment is we used these two guys and they gave 100 percent effort and the Czech team played a really high level.”

While you want your best players on court for critical moments, the truth is, Stepanek and Berdych were so exceptional today that it’s doubtful Djokovic, who had not won a Davis Cup doubles match since 2008, would have made a major difference.

The Czechs broke Zimonjic to open the first and second sets. In the opening game, a Berdych drive down the middle gave the pair break point. When Berdych blasted a low backhand, Zimonjic's stretch volley expired in the net and the Czech pair had the break and a 1-0 start. Berdych backed up the break with a quick hold at 15 for 2-0.

Seven-time doubles Grand Slam champion Zimonjic was the oldest player on the court and looked a little creaky and a half-step slow getting down for low volleys in the early stages, a challenge exacerbated by the contrasting shots the Czechs hit. The 6'5" Berdych can beat you with pure pace and shrink the court with his wide wing span; the wily Stepanek can befuddle you with well-disguised angles and spread the court with his drop volleys and lobs. A Stepanek lob winner gave the pair triple break point on Bozoljac's serve, and when Zimonjic netted a high backhand volley the Czechs had a second break and commanding 5-2 lead.

Berdych and Stepanek denied the only break point they faced when Stepanek wrong-footed Bozoljac so badly he stumbled to the court. Stepanek eventually held for 3-all in the third set. Trailing 1-3 in the third-set tiebreaker, the Czech pair reeled off four straight points. A high forehand volley from Stepanek gave them a 5-3 lead, and two points later Berdych angled off an exquisite high backhand volley for match point. Stepanek sent a service winner down the middle to seal the two-hour and 12-minute victory that sent Czech fans into a frenzy.

“They were better in every aspect of the game,” Zimonjic said. “They’re a really strong team, they are playing together for many years. This is the reality. We had a little chance in the third set but that was only chance we had to get back in the match. They were controlling the match from the beginning to the end.”

It was a master class of all-court tennis from reigning U.S. Open doubles champion Stepanek, who showed virtually the entire shot spectrum. His shrewd court sense was on display as he pounced on Serbian returns for putaways, opened the court with sharp-angled volleys, split the Serbs with shots down the middle, made poachers pay with drives down the line, and even made the toughest shot in tennis, the leaping backhand overhead, look relatively routine.

"In order to beat them I think you have to be ready that you’re gonna lose your serve because the two of them together—you don’t face too many better returning teams in the game," Zimonjic said. "And then you have to find a way to break them, which it is possible, but today we only had one break point in three sets and that showed how well they were playing."

Gearing up for his third match of the final, Berdych will face Djokovic in tomorrow’s opening reverse singles match. If Djokovic, who is riding a 23-match winning streak and owns an imposing 14-2 career record over the seventh-ranked Czech, prevails, it will set the stage for a decisive fifth rubber pitting Stepanek against probable Serbian starter Dusan Lajovic, who fell to Berdych in his first live Davis Cup match on Friday.

“I am in the best possible position: We are 2-1 in the lead and I have nothing to lose,” said Berdych, who looks looser with Stepanek by his side. “It’s a huge challenge to play him in front of his home crowd. I am going to try to fight for the point and try to play my best tennis and really try to help my team win this extremely tough point.”

Asked to consider Djokovic’s state of mind trying to lead Serbia to its second Davis Cup with Serbian No. 2 Janko Tipsarevic sidelined with a heel injury and Viktor Troicki banned from the final while serving a 12-month suspension, Berdych said the six-time Grand Slam champion could have opted to play three matches this weekend.

“If [Djokovic] feels like that that he doesn’t have good back-up for the fifth match then he should decide he should go play doubles and take all the pressure on him,” Berdych said. “That’s the decision that they’ve made. Probably he is confident enough. It’s a game and it’s gonna be very interesting till the end.”

Serbian captain Obradovic left the door open for possibly inserting Bozoljac into the final match—if necessary—however given the fact the doubles specialist has not played a Davis Cup singles match since 2009, does not have an ATP main-draw singles victory this season, and at No. 238 is ranked a 121 spots behind Lajovic (who was practicing with Djokovic a couple of hours before today’s doubles), the 117th-ranked youngster is the likely candidate despite the fact his Davis Cup resume consists of two matches.

The 44th-ranked Stepanek, who celebrates his 35th birthday in 10 days, has experienced both the exhilaration and devastation of  Davis Cup deciders: He defeated Nicolas Almagro to clinch the Cup for the Czech Republic in Prague last November a little more than two years after he lost to Tipsarevic in the decisive match of the semifinals at the Belgrade Arena.

If it comes down to the decisive fifth match, Stepanek may well have the most declarative voice in this final—and he spoke like a man determined to give Czech fans something more to sing about.

“If it comes down to the fifth match I’ll be ready to give everything. I’ll be ready to fight for the point no matter who I play,” Stepanek said. “The Czech fans are incredible. They are the unofficial member of the team. They travel with us around the world supporting us in a country which are far away from their homes. They have to sacrifice a lot to get there. It’s a big thank you to them—there is nothing better than the atmosphere in a Davis Cup final.”

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