OSTRAVA, CZECH REPUBLIC: As the Netherlands discovered to their disappointment this weekend, the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas World Group can be a cruel mistress. There is no place to hide at this level, with little room for error, while a failure to capitalise on chances will almost certainly be punished.
For a team that hasn’t won at this stage of the competition since 2005, it was always going to be difficult facing the two-time defending champions – but even more so with the Czechs’ star man, Tomas Berdych, currently enjoying some of the best form of his career.
Berdych contributed 2.5 points to the host nation’s total, crucially chalking up straight sets victories over Igor Sijsling and Thiemo De Bakker in his two singles rubbers. Such was his domination in those matches, both Sijsling and De Bakker later admitted they simply weren’t up to the world No. 7’s level.
The 3-2 reverse at the CEZ Arena sees the Dutch drop back down to the World Group play-offs, while the victorious Czechs can now book their tickets for a quarterfinal trip to Japan, who saw off an injury-hit Canada 4-1.
On paper, that last-eight clash looks a formality. But the Czechs could find their path to a third straight Davis Cup title filled with peril, especially if Berdych decides not to travel to the Land of the Rising Sun, which – at this stage – looks highly likely (more of which later).
Robin Haase got the Dutch off to a flyer in this weekend’s tie when he twice battled back to down Radek Stepanek in a gruelling five-setter, before Berdych levelled things up with a 63 63 60 demolition of Sijsling.
The 28-year-old’s exploits were all the more impressive given that he arrived in Ostrava two days later than his teammates after his run to the Australian Open semifinals. Worryingly for the Czechs, Berdych said he felt “terrible” on the Wednesday, but picked himself up in time to record his 27th and 28th Davis Cup singles victories.
“I’m really happy with the way that I handled it after the very tough transition from Australia, getting myself ready and prepared,” Berdych said after sealing the tie against De Bakker, who had been brought in for the tired Haase.
The pivotal moment of the weekend came in Saturday’s doubles rubber. The Dutch pair, Haase and Jean-Julien Rojer, had recovered from one set down to dominate the second, before squandering set points in the third. Berdych and Stepanek would eventually pull through, winning 75 16 76(2) 76(4).
It was a match the Czech pair described as the “hardest” they have encountered together in the Davis Cup, with Stepanek adding: “The [Dutch] guys played over the top of their games. They had nothing to lose and it was a high quality match.”
Looking back on the tie, Dutch captain Jan Siemerink said: “We gave it everything to make a good result. We were very close in the doubles and that actually still hurts a little bit. If we would have made one or two balls here and there, we could have won the doubles. Then you’re 2-1 up and the Czech team has to win both of the [singles] ties, and that’s a lot different of course.”
The Netherlands must now wait until April to find out who they will meet in September’s play-offs. Irrespective of the opponent, though, Siemerink believes his players’ experience in Ostrava will stand them in good stead.
“I’m positive about my team,” Siemerink said. “I hope the guys get some extra belief and extra confidence from the match. We’re not at the level of Tomas Berdych yet, but we can be close. We need to work hard every day, and if you can do that, then you have a chance to become better as a team.”
The Czech Republic, meanwhile, will have to start planning for a Davis Cup future without Berdych, for the time being at least. Amid much speculation this weekend, he all but ruled himself out of the tie with Japan – but did leave the door open for a return to the team.
“This is definitely not my last match ever in Davis Cup,” Berdych said. “But really I just need to re-focus a little bit more on my side and my career. That means that the second round with Japan is still with a big question mark. But I still have a big belief in the whole Czech team that they are strong enough to win there, even without me.”
The two nations have met twice before in this competition, although you have to go back in the history books to find their last encounter. Japan beat the former Czechoslovakia in 1930, before the Europeans got their revenge five years later to level the head-to-head scores.
Should the Czechs emerge victorious in April, they will welcome Berdych back with open arms.
“I just respect his decision, because he’s playing already ten years with the country and he needs maybe a little rest,” Navratil said. “We have to try to do our best [against Japan], and if we come to the semifinal, then Tomas is coming to the team.”