Stepanek shows skill, composure

The Davis Cup, which staged its 100th final this weekend, throws up some unlikely heroes. Radek Stepanek, a quirky character of 33 who should be on the verge of retirement, is the latest one.

Playing above and beyond his best Sunday in Prague, Stepanek won the fifth rubber for the Czech Republic against the holders, Spain, by defeating Nicolas Almagro 6-4, 7-6 (0), 3-6, 6-3 in a match that proved the old adage: “He who dares, wins.”

After world No. 5 David Ferrer had drawn Spain level at 2-2 by outclassing world No. 6 Tomas Berdych 6-2. 6-3, 7-5 with a stunning display, Stepanek did more than step up — he exploded into the most important match of his long and only intermittently distinguished career by attacking a clearly stiff and nervous Almagro at every turn.

In front of 14,500 spectators on a medium-fast indoor court at Prague’s O2 Arena, Stepanek went for winners off his backhand, held steady on his suspect forehand and volleyed out of his mind. Refusing to listen to those who say it is too risky to serve and volley in the modern game because players return too well, Stepanek frequently did so, forcing Almagro onto the defense and into a state of indecision.

The Spaniard did manage to get a foothold into the match by winning the third set, but the Czech shrugged it off and came storming back. “Even after losing that set, I knew I could win,” Stepanek said at courtside. “I was playing aggressive. I wanted to be the one who was active, who was making things happen. I have been dreaming about this my whole life.”

And now he will have his whole life to savor the moment that made him a new national hero. He had produced a brand of tennis in the most demanding of circumstances that few expected, especially as he was playing his third match in three days, having partnered with Berdych to win in doubles on Saturday. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of his triumph was the extent to which he kept control of his emotions. An extroverted character, given to strange gyrations on court that some people find funny and others don’t, Stepanek cut out all the peripheral fripperies and concentrated on nothing other than the yellow ball and the next point. A little late in life, he came of age.

It meant a lot to Stepanek and, indeed, the whole team that they were able to pull this off in front of the entire squad that had won the Davis Cup against Italy for what then was Czechoslovakia in 1980. Ivan Lendl, now an American citizen, was there along with Tomas Smid and Pavel Slozil and their captain, the former Wimbledon champion Jan Kodes, who has done so much for Czech tennis as a player and an administrator.

For Lendl, in particular, it must have seemed a little surreal. The country he played for and ultimately fled not only has a different name but also, of course, a totally different political culture. Prague under Communism was still beautiful but cloaked in drab oppression. I remember looking out of my hotel window at 1:00 a.m. during that 1980 final and seeing some poor Czech policeman, who obviously had drawn the short straw, standing in the snow and solemnly writing down the number plates of every parked car. It was an international hotel, you see, and some suspicious foreigners might have been staying there.

Even more extraordinary was the scene during Adriano Panatta’s match against Smid. An Italian supporter started to get too excited and, when a policeman told him to calm down, he allegedly bit the cop’s hand. Cue for that Italian to be dragged out of the stadium and beaten up in the snow. Almost immediately, Panatta downed his tools and refused to play. “Let him back in!” he called out from down on the court.

The police weren’t interested until officials got a phone call from Rome. By the weirdest chance, the arrested supporter was a friend of the head of the Italian Communist Party, who was watching on television. Suddenly it was a diplomatic incident. Comrades being comrades, the man duly was dusted down, patched up and put back in his seat.

It was, as Lendl will have noted, a different world.