Davis Cup, Final
Until last year the tiny proportion of the Czech Republic concentrated in its Davis Cup team had not won the Davis Cup since 1980. They’ve now won it for the second year in a row, by fielding the same two-man squad of Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek. Last year they accounted for Spain, the most successful Davis Cup nation of recent years. This year they defeated Serbia, who won the title in 2010, spearheaded by the formidable Novak Djokovic. Yet while the two finals were broadly alike in outline – even the configuration of results was vaguely similar – they could hardly have diverged more in detail. Last year’s final was historically significant, and thrilling from first to last. This year’s was frankly a bore from beginning to end, thus neatly summarising a long season in which a tournament’s last match was seldom its best.
Last year’s final usefully proved that even Spain is heavily diminished without its best player, while Serbia has now proved you cannot rely only on your best player, especially if he doesn’t play doubles. In neither final did the Czech Republic boast the best player – in both finals Tomas Berdych was soundly beaten by the opposition number one in the reverse singles – but Davis Cup ties typically aren’t decided by who has the best player, but by who has the least worst. Live fifth rubbers are always contested between the number two players, which is why they so often feature as the hero in close ties. Djokovic was impeccable in the 2010 final, walloping any Frenchman placed before him, but it was Victor Troicki’s dismissal of Michael Llodra in the fifth rubber that is destined to be remembered. Or recall Mikhail Youzhny’s defeat of Paul-Henri Mathieu in the 2002 final. More pertinently, remember Radek Stepanek’s dashing defeat of Nicolas Almagro last year. Janko Tipsarevic’s withdrawal several days before this year’s final was thus catastrophic for the Serbian team – Bogdan Obradovic likened his absence to playing tennis on one leg – and removed any tangible doubt about the eventual result. Knowing how things turn out subtracts significantly from the fascination of watching them unfold. There was some chatter as to whether Lukas Rosol should have played instead of Stepanek on the opening day in order to preserve the older man for the hardships to come. The upshot was that really it didn’t matter.
Anyone who doubts the inherent value of chaos was hopefully reassured by this year’s final. This is what sport looks like in a deterministic world. The weekend unfurled with devastating predictability, like those irritating fight scenes in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films, in which Iron Man and Moriarty hardly bother getting down to fisticuffs because they’ve already mapped out how it’s going to go down. Every match went according to prediction, and none of them went beyond three sets. It was rare for the winning player or team even to cede break points, let alone a break. The closest we came to an upset was Berdych attaining 4-4 in the first set against Djokovic via a series of desperate holds. “Anyone with a hat should be donning it for Berdych!” insisted the Eurosport commentator who wasn’t Frew McMillan. Perhaps he meant “doff”, but his yawns affected his diction.
What interest there was was confined to the doubles, as is frequently the case. In last year’s final the Czech team encountered a Spanish duo that had just won the World Tour Finals, yet cleaned them up in four sets. This year Berdych and Stepanek’s opposition proved less fearsome in Nenad Zimonjic and Ilija Bozoljac. After the heady thrill of Boise, where Bozoljac performed magnificently to see off the Bryan brothers, and the semifinal in which he and Zimonjic fought gallantly in a marathon loss, the final was a disappointment. One could term it a reality check, but that’s an unkind thing to say about a player like Bozoljac who subsists primarily on the Challenger and Futures tours, where every week is a reality check. He did his best, and it isn’t as though Zimonjic set the stadium alight.
The pressing issue was whether Djokovic would have done any better. It’s not much of an issue, but given that it is almost the sole point of contention in a searingly uneventful weekend of tennis, it is the issue that is being discussed at length. I’m not convinced it matters. Djokovic doesn’t have much of a doubles record, although he is at present the finest singles player on the planet, especially on an indoor hard court, and that’s historically a recipe for doubles success. Whether it would have been enough to snatch victory is another matter. Word was that after London he was all but spent; winning everything all the time is undoubtedly fabulous, but it does ensure you’re playing all the time. A long doubles match might have hobbled Djokovic for the reverse singles, although admittedly it would have hobbled Berdych as well. The real issue is that Stepanek and Berdych are an excellent doubles combination, and were they to pair up regularly one imagines they would enjoy tremendous success throughout the season. Alas the rigours of the singles tour preclude that possibility. Stepanek of course is a doubles specialist (it ranks highly on his list of endorsed skills on LinkedIn), and has won multiple Majors.
It turns out he is also a specialist at closing out Davis Cup finals – he now is the third player in history to win two live fifth rubbers at this stage of the competition – whether it is against Nicolas Almagro or Dusan Lajovic. Unlike Almagro, who was left alone and forlorn for far too long by his compatriots after last year’s defeat, no one anywhere holds Lajovic’s loss against him, and his team was lavish with its consolation. It had been a very big ask. No doubt a Davis Cup final is a tremendous opportunity for a young player to make his name, but there are limits. Sink or swim is beside the point when you’re thrown in with crocodiles. Stepanek was as relentless as the tide, attacking without pause, and gave the youngster nothing.
Afterwards he was overrun by his teammates, while the Czech contingent in the stands went justifiably berserk. Defending a Davis Cup title is considerably rarer than winning one. Stepanek soon extricated himself from the pile of bodies and set to vaulting the net, to the delight of the Czech fans, and no doubt the bemusement of the Serbs. Later he proffered the tactful opinion that not playing Djokovic in the doubles had been akin to “leaving your Ferrari in the garage”, ensuring that for some bemusement was transformed into outrage.
Berdych later failed to mollify his hosts by asking why Djokovic wasn’t at the post-final dinner, enquiring whether the world number two was still in the “garage”? It gave most of us something to be mildly amused by, and a certain species of plodding moraliser something to get really worked up at, which they duly did. Thus did a forgettable final weekend conclude with a modicum of interest. If only there’d been some tennis to match it. As I said last week, you cannot have everything. If you’re the Czech Republic, however, you can have the Davis Cup — again.