Throwback Throwdown

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Radek Stepanek, 37, turned back the tennis clock, and almost stole a match from Andy Murray. (AP)

“It’s unbelievable what he’s been doing,” Andy Murray said of Radek Stepanek after coming back to beat the 37-year-old Czech, 3-6, 3-6, 6-0, 6-3, 7-5, on Tuesday at Roland Garros. “I don’t expect to be doing that at his age.”

After spending three hours and 41 minutes, and the better part of two days, throwing deft drop shots and fiery fist-pumps at each other in Court Philippe Chatrier, Murray and Stepanek finished with a long hug and a happy chat at the net. As the Roland Garros website put it afterward:

ANDY MURRAY SALUTES THE IRREPRESSIBLE 37-YEAR-OLD RADEK STEPANEK

Eighteen hours earlier, that headline would have been pretty much unthinkable. During the fourth set on Monday, as the light died in Chatrier and Murray raced to come back from a two-set deficit, he wasn’t saluting Stepanek. He was accusing him of stalling, so that the match would be stopped for the night.

“Keep an eye out for how long that toilet break takes,” a frustrated Murray warned chair umpire Damien Dumusois as a conspicuously slow-moving Stepanek moseyed off to the bathroom. Murray’s frustration morphed toward apoplexy when, 10 minutes later, Stepanek wandered back out and only then decided that he was going to change his shirt. 

The clever play, the silky touch, the weird theatrics, the agitating antics: It was all par for the course for a match involving this Czech veteran. Over two otherwise dreary days in Paris, Murray and tennis fans everywhere were treated to the Stepanek Show in all of its nerdy glory. Few players in the sport’s history have ever been so simultaneously entertaining and annoying. 

When it was over, the oldest man in the singles draw took a bow and received a standing ovation. A year after suffering a sciatic nerve injury that seemed to have ended his career, the former Top Tenner and two-time Davis Cup anchor man had to qualify for the main draw this year. Hopefully, this isn’t the last time we’re treated to his big-stage act, but that’s how it felt.

When Stepanek and his throwback game go, here are a few of the things that will go with them:

—A rhythmic service motion that was made to be followed to the net. Stepanek is one of the few players left who doesn’t go for all-out power on every first delivery. Instead, he aims for placement first, and sets himself up for the next shot. Like other net-rushers and doubles specialists from days gone by, his game comes with a different music. Where today's baseliners pound a single, thudding note, he dances a two-step. Where they end points with one blow, he wins them with a combination. 

—Shotmaking that lets you see the thought process behind it. The underpowered Stepanek has always relied on deception, and he was even able to outfox the like-minded Murray on Tuesday. Plenty of players hit drop shots on clay, but Stepanek is one of the few who can change their direction at the last moment.  

—One of the game’s most versatile backhands. Among great two-handers, Stepanek’s is rarely mentioned with Murray’s or Novak Djokovic’s, but nobody else switches between the drive and the slice as naturally as he does. You can see the difference in his backhand volley: Few players with two-handers have ever been able to come up with the type of sliding, shoe-top, one-handed backhand volleys that Stepanek poked past Murray today. You don’t need to grunt, or even swing, to hit a winner like that.

—A proudly uncool style. Stepanek is famous for wearing shirts with various animals of the jungle on them, and there was something strange running across the one he had on in Paris. He’s also famous for oddball celebrations, like the delayed fist-pump combos and wild, windmilling arms he trotted out in the fifth set against Murray. If Stepanek had won, you know he would have gotten down and done the Worm across Chatrier’s clay. You might say that a 37-year-old would be wise to conserve his energy in a situation like this, but Stepanek, like a Czech Gael Monfils, has always valued the show as much as the win.

Put all of this together, and what Stepanek represents is another in a long line of “last of the serve-and-volleyers” on the men's side. That procession began, I’d say, when Pat Rafter retired in 2002; its most recent departee was Michael Llodra last year. While doubles-loving net-rushers have been dying off since the turn of the century, the bloodline has yet to be extinguished. For now, among Top 50 males players, Stepanek and 34-year-old Feliciano Lopez remain.

In Murray vs. Stepanek, you could see what that contrast in styles stills bring to the sport. The two dropped and lobbed and volleyed; they moved each other up, back, and side-to-side; they added a dimension to the court. No two extended rallies were quite the same, and all involved a sense of cause and effect, something that isn’t always obvious in a modern-day baseline slugfest. 

Stepanek pushed as far and as hard as he could, but two points from victory, he ran into a brick wall. Serving at 4-5, deuce, in the fifth, Murray took Stepanek’s best shots from the baseline and sent them all back. He had gone into lockdown mode and, on a clay court, there wasn’t anything more that Stepanek could do to break down his defenses.

The baseline game, as it always does, had lived to fight another day. But Stepanek, and his old-fashioned three-dimensional game, had stolen the show.

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