In the beginning, they were scrawny. With the induction of the open era in tennis, when professionals were “open” to play previously all amateur tournaments, tennis was ruled by the Aussies, Americans, and Bjorn Borg. For a relatively young professional sport, it grew and evolved quickly. For all that John McEnroe did to change the sport’s reputation as a quiet, gentleman’s sport, Ivan Lendl may have done to change its reputation as a game played by scrawny boys from the West. Becoming the world number 1 in 1983 and defeating McEnroe in one of Roland Garros’ most infamous finals in 1984, he went on to hold the number 1 spot for a total of 270 weeks, longer than anyone until that time.
18 years beyond Lendl’s retirement and Eastern Europe’s fascination and prowess at the sport continues on. Tomas Berdych made the Wimbledon final in 2010, and a year later his countrywoman went a step further and won the whole thing. Nay, dominated.
2012 has been a year to remember for the Czechs, first laying claim to Fed Cup (over another absurdly talented Eastern European power: Serbia) and then taking the Davis Cup from the Spanish juggernaut.
Even after Berdych’s less than impressive effort against Ferrer, you always knew Stepanek would come in with a shot against Almagro. I think it is often understated how many of these older doubles specialists (Llodra, Mirnyi when he was still playing singles) are still incredible athletes and tennis players, but fail to get up for singles matches on the tour. Who could blame them? Many are past the age of 30 and would probably do well to conserve some energy to win at the thing they are now very good at.
But there are still those moments were these types of players give it a go, and it is usually in front of the home fans. To say that Stepanek has paid his dues for his country would be an understatement. The Czechs seem a constant name in the World Group, and to see Stepanek grinding away isn’t a surprise, it’s a constant. His victory against Croatian Ivo Karlovic will forever stay in my mind. Nearly six hours and a pre-Isner/Mahut stat line that was comical. Of 494 points, 96 of them were aces. 1 in 5. I got more joy watching the live score than the actual match.
Yesterday, Stepanek gave one last hurrah for the serve and volley. The man still moves incredibly, particularly front to back, and has some of the best hands on the tour. Both his net rushing tactics and the crowd practically screamed “come at me, bro” at Almagro and the Spaniard cracked. While the turn of the century saw players such as Marat Safin pick apart the serve and volley, not everyone is a top 20 tennis player in the world, and there is still a raw relevance to trying to play aggressively and get to net, even if it isn’t after every serve.
The Davis Cup has its problems, and it doesn’t always live up to the hype. But yesterday, we once again saw why this tournament creates some of the best drama this sport has to offer. Go ride off into the sunset, Radek. You’ve earned it.