World-class party crasher Radek Stepanek spent three hours throwing every shot in his eclectic collection at Novak Djokovic—and hurling his body around the lawn with equal exuberance—inciting Centre Court fans to their feet.
Two points from a decisive fifth set, Djokovic used a benign net and brilliant forehand pass to pull the plug on the party.
The top seed squandered a 5-2 lead in a third-set tiebreaker and nearly blew the same advantage in the fourth-set tiebreaker before finally subduing a spirited Stepanek, 6-4, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (5). The match was reminiscent of the magic the pair produced in the second round of the 2007 U.S. Open when Djokovic outdueled Stepanek in a fifth-set tiebreaker.
Djokovic should be satisfied with his serving—he won 80 percent of his first-serve points, hit 18 aces against two double faults, and did not drop serve all day—and the fact he kept calm amid a tricky test. But he surely won't be pleased with the complications he created trying to finish off a stubborn opponent.
The 35-year-old Stepanek relishes his opportunity to play spoiler on the big stage. Last September, he teamed with Leander Paes to deny the Bryan brothers their shot at the doubles Grand Slam at the U.S. Open, and went on to win the title. Stepanek concluded the 2013 season playing attacking tennis in Belgrade, clinching the Czech Republic's second straight Davis Cup championship with a 3-2 victory over host Serbia. And earlier this month, the wily veteran was at it again, saving eight set points to stun Andy Murray at Queen's Club, snapping the defending champion's 19-match grass-court winning streak and revoking his bid for his 450th career victory.
Djokovic prepared for Wimbledon practicing with Stepanek last week and hit a pair of sharp serves to save the first two break points of the day, holding for 5-4. Dialing up his damaging down-the-line backhand for successive winners, Djokovic broke to seize the first set.
Just after an hour of play, a deep return rattled Stepanek's racquet, giving Djokovic the break and a 4-2 second-set lead. He zapped a slick forehand swing volley not long after to take a two-set lead. But what began as a straightforward march would soon escalate into an all-court thriller.
Djokovic, the faster mover who can access sharper angles because he plays with more spin, won the majority of baseline rallies, while the flatter-hitting Stepanek's varied methods of attacking net—he mixed the serve-and-volley with sneak attacks and delayed rushes behind the slice—helped him force a third-set tiebreaker. The 2011 Wimbledon champion slashed a 122 M.P.H ace down the middle to win his fifth straight point and take a firm and seemingly insurmountable 5-2 lead.
Stepanek barely blinked. The Czech cracked a backhand winner down the line, sparking a run of five consecutive points. Attacking net, Stepanek earned set point as Djokovic tumbled to the turf chasing a backhand. Playing a restrained point behind the baseline, Stepanek hit a slice backhand to coax a backhand error, snatching a third set that looked lost just minutes earlier and bounding to his seat celebrating with a double fist-pump.
The 2006 Wimbledon quarterfinalist navigated a deuce game to hold for 1-all in the fourth. The server dictated for the rest of the set until Stepanek smacked a deep return to earn break point at 5-all. Stepanek angled a daring drop shot, but Djokovic burst off the baseline, caught up to the ball, and hammered a backhand winner cross-court, saving the break chance and hurling an exuberant fist pump toward the sky while his fiancée, Jelena Ristic, leaped out of her courtside seat.
Lashing a backhand down the line, Djokovic was once again up 5-2 in the tiebreaker, but Stepanek wasn't done. He reached 5-all, then serve-and-volleyed and was in prime position to earn set point, but the man who had hit several spectacular volleys put a routine forehand volley into the top of the tape to hand Djokovic match point. Curling a running cross-court forehand, Djokovic closed a tough test in three hours, 17 minutes—after Hawk-Eye confirmed his shot had indeed caught the sideline. Fittingly, the two friends walked off the court together to a rousing ovation.
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