Wednesday, November 28, 2012
For the Czechs, team matters
By Richard Pagliaro
Petra Kvitkova was key in the Czech Republic's Federation Cup win over Serbia.
Hops are home in the Czech Republic, which boasts the highest beer consumption per capita in the world. So it was fitting that Radek Stepanek celebrated his Davis Cup-clinching victory over Nicolas Almagro by vaulting the net twice after carrying more than 14,000 buzzing fans on a four-set thrill-ride in Prague earlier this month.
"I think I'm living the dream right now," Stepanek said following his 6-4, 7-6 (0), 3-6, 6-3 triumph in the decisive fifth match that lifted the host to a 3-2 victory over defending-champion Spain. "I believe all of us, the whole country, lives a dream today."
Pouring passion onto the court, Czech players delivered a double shot of elation to the nation.
In a two-week span, the Czech Republic swept both the Federation Cup and the Davis Cup, transforming Prague, the nation's capital, into the center of the international team tennis universe.
Lucie Safarova and Petra Kvitova powered the Czechs past Serbia, 3-1, to successfully defend the Fed Cup in the first week of November. Two weeks later, the 33-year-old Stepanek, who won his first ATP doubles title in Prague, and Tomas Berdych accounted for all three points in avenging the 2009 final loss to Spain and snapping a 32-year Davis Cup drought in winning the 100th Davis Cup final in history. Members of the 1980 Czech championship squad -- Ivan Lendl, Jan Kodes, Pavel Slozil and Tomas Smid -- beamed from the seats while the team danced on the court.
Players wrapped a white, red and blue bow around a season that spiked with a series of Czech points. Berdych and Kvitova started the year of the double-tailed Lion joining forces to win the nation's second Hopman Cup. Stepanek teamed with Leander Paes to capture his first career Grand Slam doubles title at the Australian Open. In his Wimbledon main-draw debut, 100th-ranked Lukas Rosol scored one of the biggest upsets in Open Era history in shocking Rafael Nadal in the second round. The Czech pair of Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka, who won the 2011 Roland Garros doubles, reached the finals of both the Olympics and Wimbledon (losing to the Williams sisters in both title matches), and were semifinalists at the Australian Open and Roland Garros.
Czech success reinforces a fundamental tennis truth: Team play matters. Berdych and Stepanek own a Czech-best 12-1 record in Davis Cup doubles, Safarova won her first WTA doubles title in Charleston this season and Kvitova, who reached the Australian Open semis in January with a shot to claim the No. 1 ranking before struggling through an illness and injury-marred season, has won 11 of her last 12 Fed Cup singles matches.
Consider there are eight Czech women ranked in the Top 100, the sixth-ranked Berdych won two titles and beat Roger Federer to reach the U.S. Open semifinals for the first time and the ageless Stepanek possesses the all-court guile, sneaky-fast serve, bold two-handed backhand and prickly competitive skills to get under opponents' skin, and you can make a case the nation of about 10-and-a-half million can use its 2012 team success to launch a renaissance. Imagine if Stepanek's wife, former World No. 7 Nicole Vaidisova, who cheered her husband's heroics from her court-side seat, ever returns to action?
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In recent years, excelling in the white-hot cauldron of international team events can infuse players with a confidence and competitive calm they can carry into tournament play. Italy won successive Fed Cup titles in 2009 and 2010; Francesca Schiavone, a member of those championship teams, won the 2010 Roland Garros and Fed Cup teammates Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci paired to win Roland Garros and the U.S. Open doubles titles this year with Errani reaching the French Open singles final and beating Vinci to earn a spot in the U.S. Open semifinal. Novak Djokovic posted a 7-0 singles record in leading Serbia to its first Davis Cup championship in 2010, propelling him to a masterpiece of a 2011 season in which he captured 10 titles in 11 finals, collecting three of the four majors.
The nation that was the toast of team tennis in 2012 could well brew up some singles success in 2013. Kvitova, the 2011 Wimbledon winner, owns one of the most complete games in women's tennis and if she can maintain her health and fitness, she will be a Top 10 presence and Grand Slam contender for years, says Slovak-born former No. 1 Martina Hingis, who compares Kvitova's clean ball-striking to another Czech standout, former Australian Open champ Petr Korda, who has coached Stepanek.
"I love Kvitova's game. She reminds me a little bit of Petr Korda as a lefty; the same fluid strokes like him," Hingis told us. "Even if she is in danger, Kvitova can still come out with great shots because she knows what she's doing. It's exciting to me to see someone so young with such a knowledge of the game."