PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC: Davis Cup by BNP Paribas, bless its soul, can never be accused of being predictable or straightforward, as the people of Czech Republic will testify.
Radek Stepanek and Tomas Berdych played games with their emotions on day one at the O2 Arena in Prague right up until the moment Nicolas Almagro put a backhand return wide on match point to Berdych.
In that moment, the momentum which for the best part of the day had seemed largely with Spain as it sought to crown its superiority in this new millennium with victory in the 100th final, suddenly switched sides. In truth, this tie is as beautifully balanced as it was before a ball had been struck.
All square at the end of the first day’s play was what most people expected, but happily there were a few twists and turns before arriving at that juncture. Going into the fifth and final set of the second rubber Spain appeared to have the upper hand. They had a 1-0 lead, courtesy of David Ferrer’s comprehensive 63 64 64 victory over Stepanek, and Almagro seemed poised to punish an increasingly tentative Berdych.
Not for the first time in the competition this year, however, Berdych showed his mettle and did what he has done nine times out of 12 in matches against the Spaniard, which was win. Upon completion of his 63 36 63 67(5) 63 victory in just two minutes short of four hours all eyes fixed upon the customary handshake at the net, knowing there is no love lost between the two and while not exactly effusive it was sporting enough and certainly preferable to a rather more infamous one in this same arena in April between Stepanek and Serbia’s Janko Tipsarevic.
With the revered class of 1980 - Ivan Lendl, Tomas Smid and the rest - on hand to reminisce about the good old days everything is nicely in place for a hot time in the old town come Sunday night. Today’s team, though, would be well advised to keep their minds firmly on the business in hand, otherwise they could be drowning their sorrows on Sunday night.
Czech Republic’s chief concern, over and above both their players’ swift recovery from their exertions, will be the form of their old warhorse Stepanek, who needs to get his mojo working again in time for Saturday’s doubles. Against the fresh and burgeoning force of Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez this is no longer the banker point it normally is for the Czechs.
Playing his first competitive singles match in 24 days, Stepanek couldn’t have looked more rusty if he had coloured himself orange. In that same time span Ferrer had played 14 highly competitive singles matches, winning titles in Valencia and Paris before winning two of his three round-robin matches at the Barclays ATP World Tour finals. Need one say any more?
Stepanek’s first serve was what particularly betrayed him – just 51 per cent of points won, including five double faults in the first set alone. He made no attempt to dismiss these wretched statistics and was magnanimous in his praise for Ferrer.
“I don't remember when I served that many double faults in a match,” he said. “I completely lost the timing on my serve. I couldn't put him under the pressure with the high percentage of the first serve, coming to the net, taking the activity, changing the rhythm.
“When I played a lot of points from the second serve, his part of the game was more effective than mine because I had to risk the second serve to come to the net and I had to work for the points much harder than I wanted to. That's why I always in every set felt behind. I played a better opponent today. He deservedly won the match.”
As he correctly stated, he has played badly before and quickly bounced back to rectify matters and said he would “not go to bed thinking only about my serve”. Few would bet against him rediscovering his poise alongside his good friend Berdych when they attempt to win their 15th rubber out of 16 against Granollers and Lopez, the surprise ATP World Tour finals champions.
Apart from the blow to his confidence and service rhythm, there was also the small matter of two minutes short of three hours’ toil against a player who doesn’t know the meaning of the phrase “lost cause”. Nor, too, it seemed, did Stepanek in the sixth game of the first set when he saved seven break points.
At what physical cost all this was to the Czech, who will be 34 later this month, we will find out as this tie progresses but he was unconcerned about it. Ferrer, for his part, might be a little perturbed about converting just five of a staggering 25 break points.
Ferrer’s win, of course, just piled the pressure on Berdych, who in the first set made light of it. But when he tamely succumbed in the second the crowd went worryingly quiet for Czech tastes. As ever, it needed some good old controversy over a line decision to spark them – and Berdych – back into life and at the start of the third set it got it.
Berdych was on his way back to his chair when he was made to replay a game point by umpire Carlos Ramos, of Portugal. He grudgingly did so and won the point but the most beneficial thing from his perspective was that the supposed injustice served to galvanise him. The momentum shift was confirmed in the next game when after saving two break points from 0-40 down Almagro double-faulted to the undisguised delight of the home fans.
If the set was then there for the taking by Berdych, the fourth set was no less so. The big man had a point for a double break in the fifth game only for Almagro to save it and Spaniard then got himself right back into it with a break of his own in the very next game. It eventually went to a tiebreak which Almagro won after almost surrendering a 5-0 lead.
Serving first in the final set was an advantage that Berdych pressed home in the sixth game when he broke to go 4-2 ahead. Two consecutive breaks of serve filled neither camp with great conviction that their man would emerge triumphant, but Berdych ultimately held his nerve the better and the outpouring of relief upon winning could hardly have been more tangible.
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