<
>

Radek Stepanek, your new Davis Cup hero

In his reaction story on the critical Davis Cup-deciding fifth rubber between the Czech and defending champion Spain, my Tennis magazine colleague Steve Tignor wrote:

"That should have been the end of Almagro. In any of the majors, it would have been the end of him. But this was Davis Cup, and Stepanek was playing his third best-of-five match in as many days."

He could have broken it off at "But this was Davis Cup."

This past weekend we received another wonderful lesson in what makes Davis Cup so great, and again raises the question of why support for the competition here in the U.S. is lukewarm at best -- even though Americans now seem over the moon for that other international team competition, "futbol" (aka soccer).

At this Davis Cup, Radek Stepanek became Cinderella, although the lips are more Mick Jagger and the attitude is more Shannon Sharpe. When the draw kicked off Friday, Stepanek, the Czech No. 2, against Spanish No. 1 David Ferrer, it was taken as a nice break for Spain. It didn't work out that way.

Given that Ferrer is No. 5 in the ATP world rankings and Stepanek is a 33-year-old world No. 37, the assumption was that a win by Ferrer would take the pressure off Spain's No. 2, Nicolas Almagro, when he met the Czech No. 1, ATP No. 6 Tomas Berdych.

And even if Berdych produced the expected win, there was the often-pivotal doubles: Spain had the newly crowned ATP World Tour Finals champions, Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez; the Czechs originally nominated unknowns Lukas Rosol and Ivo Minar.

Of course, everyone knew that should the Czechs find themselves in desperate straits, they would call upon the two singles players to make up a formidable doubles team. (Berdych was 16-1 in Davis Cup doubles, mostly with 14-2 Stepanek -- although it meant that Berdych and Stepanek would have to play three five-set matches on consecutive days.)

The dilemma faced by Czech coach Jaroslav Navratil was another tribute to the Davis Cup format. Who ever thought a simple best-of-five match meeting between two nations limited to four-man teams could become so strategic? It's like that creative writing teacher told you: "Less is more."

The singles players did their jobs on Day 1: Stepanek never looked like he could topple Ferrer. Berdych predictably handled Almagro, but in a five-set war of attrition. Thus, the critical doubles question for Navratil kicked in: Should he go for the 2-1 lead at the risk of leaving his singles players physically depleted or face a must-win-two-matches Sunday?

Navratil decided to go for the immediate W, hoping that the Davis Cup gods would leave Spain feeling uncomfortable and stressed out while inspiring one or the other of his singles players to overachieve. He called it from the gut, I think. He seemed to understand that so many other factors come into play in this competition that you might as well throw conventional ideas about age, style, fitness and current form right out the window.

We all saw the result: Berdych got his clock cleaned by Ferrer, who stepped up in his quiet way to do what had to be done while Berdych again shrank from the occasion. That put the championship on the racket of Stepanek, and he took full advantage. He rode the home-court advantage to the hilt; it peeled away a decade of those tough tennis years and helped him play a brand of aggressive, volley-rich tennis that is unfamiliar to Almagro -- and everyone else -- these days.

Typical Davis Cup tension and that outside-the-box Stepanek game were just too much for Almagro. Stepanek and the Davis Cup heebie-jeebies got to Almagro, and as a result, the Czech Republic finally won a title to go with the one earned as Czechoslovakia way back in 1980.

Spain, while undeniably a dynasty, is reeling. Many of the stories this week were about how good Spain is even without the services of Rafael Nadal. Perhaps it's time to revisit the question.