Radek Stepanek: Defiant Artist

For the first time since 1980, prior to Czechoslovakia’s end of communist rule and subsequent split into separate entities Czech Repulic and Slovakia, the Davis Cup has been won by the Czech team.

The 1980 win was achieved by a team consisting of non-other-than, the great Ivan Lendl, along with a supporting cast of Jan Kodes, Tomas Smid and Pavel Slozil.

The 2012 championship was a fascinating affair culminating in a scintillating final.

Ivan Lendl was in the stands watching. It should be noted that he was smiling too. For me it was the third siting of the illusive Lendl smile, all in 2012. I saw it after Andy Murray won Olympic gold and again during Murray’s speech in New York after winning the U S Open, his first grand slam title.

Led by 33 year-old journeyman Radek Stepanek, the Czech team consisting of Stepanek, Tomas Berdych, Lukas Rosol (yes, that Lukas Rosol who inspired my mid-summer post entitled “In The Zone”) and Ivo Minar ousted Italy, Serbia, Argentina and finally, defending champions Spain, to hoist the coveted trophy.

Though Rosol was a singles alternate, it was eery seeing him on the sideline cheering his team on. Considering his stunning bludgeoning upset win over Rafael Nadal in the second round of Wimbledon this year, I thought, “Wow, maybe he is the Czech’s secret weapon.”

But it was Stepanek and Berdych who played the key roles to pull off what many thought an improbable victory.

Stepanek became the first 30-plus year old to win Davis Cup in 100 years and he did it in this, the 100th Davis Cup competition.

The final could not have been more dramatic.

Deadlocked at 2-2, the fifth rubber between Stepanek and Spain’s Nicolas Almagro would provide a deciding point to settle the issue.

Though playing his third best-of-five set match in three days, while bleeding from abrasions to both knees and his right elbow, a tired but inspired Stepanek prevailed.

It was an awesome performance.

On numerous occasions, I’ve read or heard Stepanek referred to as a “throw back” style player because he employs serve-volley tactics.

I think characterizing Stepanek as a “throw back” player is doing him an injustice. Those two words make it sound as though he is playing in some archaic, caveman fashion.

To the contrary, I consider Stepanek a marvelously effective practitioner of an all-but-lost art of the serve-volley game. He puts constant pressure on his opponents. If they haven’t come prepared to hit passing shot after passing shot, and then hit some more of them, damn good ones, they’re in for a frustrating match, one that Stepanek will probably win.

Stepanek’s style of play is confident controlled aggression. He’s relentless but not reckless. He’s coming in and he’s daring the opposition to stop him.

Do to advances in racket and string technology, along with the remarkably high level of physicality of today’s players, winners can be hit from insane angles while players are often on the dead run sometimes ten or more feet behind the baseline. That’s why there’s a clear reluctance by players to come to net. It’s even more pronounced in women’s tennis.

There is a defiant, intellectual artistry to Stepanek’s play. His serves and ground strokes are carefully orchestrated moves designed with the ultimate goal of getting in to net while his opponent is in a vulnerable position.

It’s not at all random or mindless. It’s bold, fearless and aggressively calculated.

Stepanek has phenomenal instincts and court awareness. And obviously, he has a very strong work ethic. He has to because he is dedicated to unrelenting forward progress. There’s no ambiguity, he’s coming in. Coaches should make it mandatory that their junior students watch Stepanek play a match. There’s much to be learned from the experience.

Radek Stepanek successfully demonstrates to pundits, players, coaches and the public that serve-volley is still viable in modern-day professional tennis.

He does it emphatically.

It’s a cultivated, aesthetically pleasing execution of an underused methodology.

It’s exciting to watch an expert ply his trade. It’s even more awesome to see it done with grand precision.

Stepanek does just that, and he does it sublimely.


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