November 19, 2012

One Hundred Years in the Making

Should it come as any surprise that the hundredth Davis Cup final would come down to the wire and be filled with more shocks than a fuzzy carpet in winter?

There was plenty of talent on both sides of the net, of course, but history stood squarely on the side of the Spaniards -- the five-time winners brought a deeper roster, higher-ranked players and an ATP Championship doubles team. All they had to do was hold their party lines and it would be smooth sailing. And when things kicked off, it looked like they'd do just that.

Veteran David Ferrer came out swinging in his opening rubber, downing Radek Stepanek in straight sets. Tomas Berdych had a tougher time sticking to his script, however -- Nicolas Almagro, a frequent nemesis of his in 2012, didn't relent in Friday's showdown and pushed the world #6 to five sets. Ultimately the higher-ranked player prevailed, though, and we went into doubles Saturday all tied up.

That's when the Czechs pulled the old switcheroo -- instead of featuring little known Ivo Minar and giant-killer Lukas Rosol, they re-teamed Stepanek, a member of the #2 doubles team in the world, with Berdych. The pair had delivered a crucial rubber for their country in the semifinals against Argentina back in September, and proved to be the dealmaker this time around as well. Against the London champion team of Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez, the Czechs got down a set early, but somehow rallied for the four-set win and established themselves as the unlikely leaders going into the final Sunday.

Things wouldn't be easy for the underdogs. Berdych, after two tough days on court, couldn't muster enough strength against Ferrer in the headlining match of championship weekend. The Spaniard was barely tested in the three sets and quickly avenged his loss to his opponent in last year's ATP championship.

So it would come down to the final rubber to decide this Davis Cup -- the sixth time that's happened since the turn of the century. But this was no ordinary tiebreak -- thirty-three year old Radek Stepanek, whose ranking is an even bigger number than his age, took on Nicolas Almagro, six years his junior and about twenty-five spots higher than him. The two had only met three times before, with the Spaniard winning their only match in over two years, at this year's U.S. Open. The odds were squarely in Almagro's favor -- Stepanek had lost more singles matches than he'd won this year, while Nico had added two more titles to his kitty. And after Friday's fight against Berdych, he showed just how much he was capable of.

But Stepanek was reinvigorated on Sunday. Two straight days of match play didn't seem to faze the veteran, and he stuck with his opponent through a fifty-six minute first set to get an early lead. Almagro got an early break in the second, but the Czech fought back to get even and dominated the breaker. He lost a step or two in the third, allowing the Spaniard to get on the board, but in the fourth set Stepanek took charge from the beginning and didn't allow a break chance. After nearly four hours of play that day he became the hero of the Czech team, closing out a victory even his higher-ranked compatriots were unable to do, and winning his country its first Davis Cup since independence.

The win does a little more than that for Czech tennis -- by winning the hundredth Davis Cup final contested, they've also marked the first time since 1990 that the same country has won both the Davis and Fed Cups and the first time in history anyone has swept both plus the Hopman Cup. Whether this end-of-year success will translate into a new era of dominance in the 2013 season of course remains to be seen. But with momentum shifting solidly from old powerhouses to these plucky upstarts, we really could see something in this sport we haven't ever seen before.

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