Securing its first Davis Cup title since 1980, the Czech Republic dethroned defending champion Spain in a final that extended to the fifth rubber. We discuss a few stories that emerged from the tightly contested weekend in Prague
Stepanek’s signature moment: An eccentric, polarizing character, the Czech #2 once reached the top 10 and recorded a handful of stunning upsets (Federer in Rome) and near-upsets (Djokovic at the US Open) late in his career. But Stepanek never achieved the consistency necessary to mount a serious campaign at a major or at most Masters 1000 tournaments. Earlier in 2012, his Australian Open doubles title with Leander Paes had appeared to mark the pinnacle of a fading career—until he became the first man in Davis Cup history to win the decisive fifth rubber of a final at the age of 30 or older. Steady in his commitment to national pride, if steady in little else, he overcame the substantial rankings gap that separated him from Almagro as well as the fatigue of playing a best-of-five match on a third straight day. Dominant early and resilient late, Stepanek struck formidable serves when the Cup rested on his racket while never retreating from his fearlessly aggressive tactics.
Berdych walks the walk after talking the talk: If Spain had secured the victory, some embarrassment would have descended on him for noting the vulnerability of Almagro and the doubles squad of Granollers/Lopez. As events unfolded, Berdych essentially proved himself right by dispatching the former on Friday and the latter on Saturday before falling to the only non-maligned member of the visiting team on Sunday. The pressure with which his remarks burdened him did not unhinge him deep in a frustrating fifth set against Almagro, and he deserves credit for his adequately courteous handshake at the net when it ended. Like Djokovic in 2010-11, Berdych may catapult from this breakthrough victory for his nation to a strong individual performance next year, within the limits of his talents. If top-15 opponent Almagro is a “weak link,” surely players like Gulbis and Darcis are even weaker.
Ferrer’s fine finish: On the indoor hard courts where he rarely has flourished, the world #5 ended 2012 with three strong performances in Paris, London, and Prague. Two weeks after he won his first Masters 1000 title, and one week after he defeated two top-eight opponents at the year-end championships, Ferrer won all six sets that he played at a Davis Cup final in hostile territory. The triumph may taste bittersweet in view of Spain’s eventual loss, but he played the role of national #1 as well as anyone could have asked. The most impressive performer of the weekend, Ferrer led the ATP in matches won and titles won this year as the year in which he turned 30 featured his greatest achievements so far.
Talent trumps depth: As sanguine as Berdych sounded, the Spanish doubles team of Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez should have entered the final with plenty of confidence. Not only had they just won the year-end championships in London, but they had played together consistently this season and should have held the edge over the hosts in teamwork and experience. Like Federer and Wawrinka at the Olympics four years ago, Berdych and Stepanek reminded audiences that those traits often fall short against two players with superior individual talents. Depth often plays a central role in Davis Cup, so the victory of a two-man team over a four-man team provided a welcome departure from the script—and a convincing reason for celebrating the Czech victory.
Almagro, the “weak link” indeed: Not far outside the top 10, the Spanish #2 lost both of his singles matches, including the decisive fifth rubber to a clearly inferior foe. Almagro struck plenty of formidable serves and explosive backhands, threatening in both matches. Ultimately, though, his long groundstroke swings and questionable shot selection undid him against the more opportunistic Czechs. As many of Spain’s stars age, its famous depth may dwindle if players like Almagro lie just behind Nadal and Ferrer.
Czechs hold all the cards: Just the third nation to hold the Fed Cup and Davis Cup titles simultaneously, the Czech Republic also became the first nation to win the Hopman Cup, Fed Cup, and Davis Cup in the same year. Far from the epicenters of tennis power for most of the post-Navratilova/Lendl era, it may have returned to prominence with the exploits of Kvitova and Berdych. Even when those stars slump at individual tournaments, they generally produce scintillating tennis under their nation’s colors.