BELGRADE, SERBIA: Czech Republic will take a 2-1 lead into the last day of the 2013 Davis Cup by BNP Paribas Final after a doubles masterclass from Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek in Saturday’s all-important third rubber earned the visitors a crucial advantage.
Berdych and Stepanek combined to defeat Ilija Bozoljac and Nenad Zimonjic 62 64 76(4) in two hours and 12 minutes and put the pressure firmly on Novak Djokovic's shoulders going into Sunday’s first reverse singles rubber against Berdych.
“These guys are unbelievable,” said buoyant stand-in Czech captain Vladimir Safarik of his doubles team after they extended their Davis Cup doubles record together to 14-1. “Their record is amazing. They played an unbelievable game. We are 2-1 up and it’s just one step to make tomorrow."
"We just put all the pressure on them and we are in the best possible position after Saturday,” added Berdych. “I have nothing to lose [tomorrow]. It's a huge challenge to play Novak on his own court."
Serbia will now have to rely on either world No. 117 Dusan Lajovic or No. 238 Bozoljac to bring the title home for the 2010 champions should Djokovic safely negotiate Berdych in the fourth rubber.
"This is the Davis Cup. This is great for the competition, having those two great players on the final day. It's going to be a very exciting day," said Serbia captain Obradovic. "I’m just waiting for tomorrow and tonight I’ll make the decision about who is going to play in the fifth match, the deciding match."
Saturday’s doubles had been billed as a must-win encounter for both teams, but more so for the hosts who opted to keep Djokovic fresh for the fourth rubber. In Zimonjic and Bozoljac, they called on a pairing that had already proved their mettle against the world’s best by defeating USA’s Bob and Mike Bryan in this year’s quarterfinals.
But Berdych and Stepanek are a cut above the rest in this competition, especially on their favoured surface. Their only defeat in 14 previous rubbers together came against Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco on clay in the 2009 Final, and there appeared to be little chance of a slip up in a match of this magnitude.
Zimonjic, the oldest player ever to feature in a World Group Final at 37, was awarded the Davis Cup Award of Excellence in an on-court presentation moments before the match but, unfortunately for the Serb, that was to be the high point of his day.
He was immediately broken in the first game of the match and was on the wrong end of the only break in the second set in virtually identical circumstances as Berdych and Stepanek were again quick to assert their authority.
The strength of their partnership is as brazen as it is effective. Berdych slams down brutish serves and pummels the ball to all corners from the baseline, albeit with occasional forays to the net, while Stepanek takes charge at the net, darting in an around the service box displaying characteristics of both hyperactive child and master craftsman. His touch is sublime, and the team discipline's world No. 9, one of the world’s finest at reading the doubles court, was at his very best today.
“Today I felt pretty good on the court,” said Stepanek. “I felt like the first two and a half sets I’m on a soccer field. The court felt very big. It’s a pleasure to play with Tomas by my side. We fit together with our games and we controlled the match from the first point until the last.”
Having run away with the first set, the Czechs continued a similar pattern in the second. Immediate pressure from the blue-shirts was rewarded at 30-40 on Zimonjic’s serve when a drilled forehand struck the net tape and looped over the outstretched arm of the hapless Serb, before dipping down inside the baseline for another break.
Serbia captain Bogdan Obradovic showed the strain at this stage, halting play to berate his own supporters standing behind the court as the Serbs looked for any possible way to make an indent on the Stepanek serve.
The Serbs tightened up their act in the third set. Bozoljac took the pressure off Zimonjic by serving first, and his hold steadied the ship as they garnered more of a foothold in the match.
It wasn’t until the ninth game of the third set that the Serbs finally managed a break point though, and the Czechs were not caught short. Racing to pick up a short ball at 30-40, Stepanek guided a deft drop volley into the empty space to see off the danger.
That, it seemed, was Serbia's best chance to strike. Berdych and Stepanek bossed the ensuing tiebreak to round out a hugely important triumph and earn the Czechs two chances on Sunday to become the first nation to win back-to-back Davis Cup titles since Spain in 2008-09.
“I have full belief in Tomas that he can perform great tomorrow,” said Stepanek. “He has a shot. Novak will be under pressure [knowing] that he has to make the point.
"If it comes to 2-all, I’m ready. I always have been and I always will be. There’s nothing more exciting than to play at 2-all. If it happens I’ll be ready but we have to wait for that.”
Follow this tie as it happens: Live scores or Watch Live
Captain Bogdan Obradovic (SRB) - 16/11/2013
Captain Vladimir Safarik (CZE) - 16/11/2013
Tomas Berdych/Radek Stepanek (CZE) - 16/11/2013