INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—Who says you can’t win at the net on the slow hard courts here? Radek Stepanek, who rolled through the first set of his match on Saturday 6-2, in just 38 minutes, might tell you otherwise. The Czech was nine of 12 at net, and dictated with controlled aggression. Not bad for a 35-year-old.
The next question is: Who says you can’t win against Rafael Nadal at the net on the slow hard courts at Indian Wells? Stepanek, while he hit 33 winners and pushed the world No. 1 to the limit, will have to give a different answer there. Despite a career-high eight double faults, Nadal came back to beat him in a nail-biter, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5.
Stepanek had a plan, and he stuck with it for better and worse. That plan was to take his flat, on-the-rise forehand down the line and approach the net, robbing Nadal of as much time as he could. Stepanek hits his forehand with virtually no margin for error. When he connected tonight, the shot was a winner; even Rafa couldn’t get near it. But Stepanek was never going to connect on all of them. As the match went on and he slowed a bit, his forehands started to fly. Serving at 4-5 in the third, with the match on the line, Nadal went at Stepanek’s forehand with every shot, and drew four errors.
Yet in the next game, at 5-5, Stepanek saved two break points with brilliant down-the-line forehands, before finally succumbing on the third break point when he sailed—you guessed it—a forehand well long. Which made sense, because the theme of this match was surprise. First there was the fact that Stepanek, who hasn't beaten Nadal in seven tries, made the first set look easy. But equally baffling was the fact that each time Rafa looked ready to turn it around and run away with it in the last two sets, he faltered.
Nadal broke Stepanek to start the third, but gave the break back right away with a strange series of unforced errors. A few minutes later, he appeared to be plunging quickly to defeat. At 2-3 in the third, Rafa dropped a miserable forehand pass into the bottom of the net and double-faulted to go down 0-40. A service winner and an ace got him back to 30-40, and then came the point of the match. After a long back-and-forth rally, Stepanek approached low to Nadal’s backhand, but the Spaniard was there for the running crosscourt pass. His fist-pump was echoed by the two fists that Larry Ellison threw in the air a few feet away. Crisis, for player and owner, averted.
“I was a little bit of lucky,” Nadal said afterward with a grin, acknowledging how important that 2-3 game had been. He also acknowledged that while Stepanek is a “tough guy to play,” he would need to clean up his act going forward. And soon: Nadal could have it tough again in his next round, when he faces the explosively streaky Alexandr Dolgopolov.