As I got ready to turn on my NFL RedZone channel for the Sunday football games, there was “must-watch” tennis on the Tennis Channel, and probably the last live pro tennis match we’ll get to see in 2012. At the O2 Arena in Prague, with the tie tied (no pun intended) at 2-2, Nicolas Almagro of Spain and Radek Stepanek of the Czech Republic battled in the fifth and deciding rubber for the 100th Davis Cup final. Spain, the defending champions, were looking to repeat without their top player Rafael Nadal. The Czech Republic was looking for their second Davis Cup title, and to become the first nation since the United States in 1990 to win both the Fed Cup and Davis Cup in same year.
There was a buzz in the air, and the energy of the crowd permeated through the television screen like an epic dramatic movie. Using the intensity of the home crowd and the fast indoor court conditions, Stepanek jumped out to a two sets to love lead, seemingly taking a strangle hold on the match. However, Almagro showed his heart, taking the third set and starting to wear down the 34-year-old Czech veteran. With the crowd nervous and concerned, an obviously fatiguing Stepanek wandered off the court for a quick bathroom break after the third set, with the stage set for a dramatic finish.
The quick recess seemed to rejuvenate him, as Stepanek returned to the court and began attacking the net at will. Following an easy hold to start the set, he broke Almagro right away to take a 2-0 lead in the fourth set, punctuating it with a strong fist pump to the crowd. Loud, fiery, demonstrative, it was beautiful.
Clearly running on fumes, Stepanek continued to ride the momentum of the home crowd that was going crazy, starting to taste the thrill of victory. In between points, the chair umpire couldn’t quiet down the raucous onlookers, as there had to be a stoppage in play because the audience wouldn’t stop cheering long enough to start a point. As the tension mounted, Almagro and Spanish coach Alex Corretja were furious at the umpire for losing control of the crowd. And just when the energy couldn’t get any more electric, the Czech followed up the stoppage in play with a diving volley to go up 30-15 in his service game at 4-2. The crowd exploded, and Radek bounced up off the ground into an emphatic double fist pump to the crowd. The game went to multiple deuces, but Stepanek held to take a 5-2 lead, one game away from clinching the title.
After fighting off a match point, Almagro held serve to make it 5-3, putting the pressure squarely back on Stepanek to serve out the match. Radek played a couple tentative points early in the game to put himself into a 15-30 hole, but after two big clutch serves he arrived at his second championship point. After a brief rally, the Spaniard would drive a backhand into the net. Stepanek sunk to his knees, overcome by emotion, as his coaches and teammates ran out on the court to hug him in celebration, all the while as the crowd erupts into a chorus of cheers and screams. Radek, now a national hero, leapt over the net waving his arms in the air, rousing the home crowd in a full frenzy, becoming the first player over 30 years old to win a fifth and deciding rubber match of a Davis Cup final in a hundred years.
In a classy display of sportsmanship, Stepanek then ran over to congratulate the Spanish team and console their courageous warrior who had just lost the deciding match. You could tell the emotion of the moment was getting to Almagro as he sat in his chair, watching the Czechs celebrate the title he failed to get. The pressure of filling the shoes of the national hero, Rafael Nadal, and failing to win a match over the course of the entire weekend seemed to overtake him as he sat and observed the ecstasy that filled the arena in front of him.
There was no more telling a moment than when the two man team responsible for every point the Czech team won, Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek, embraced in the middle of the court as the crowd roared in appreciation. The efforts of those two men, in singles and together as a doubles team, carried them to victory over the dominant Spanish team that had won three of the previous four years. The national star and the seasoned veteran, became national heros together this past weekend in Prague.
Thanks for reading,
PS. Here are the full results from all the weekend action…
Czech Republic def. Spain — 3-2
David Ferrer (ESP) def. Radek Stepanek (CZE): 6-3, 6-4, 6-4
Tomas Berdych (CZE) def. Nicolas Almagro (ESP): 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 6-7(5), 6-3
Berdych/Stepanek (CZE) def. Marcel Granollers/Marc Lopez (ESP): 3-6, 7-5, 7-5, 6-3
Ferrer (ESP) def. Berdych (CZE): 6-2, 6-3, 7-5
Stepanek (CZE) def. Almagro (ESP): 6-4, 7-6(0), 3-6, 6-3
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