“It’s the ultimate team sport … there’s a guaranteed level of entertainment night after night after night that transcends star power…. It’s a blue-collar game that happens to be tailor-made for the ADD generation.”
The above quote is from a Bill Simmons article on Grantland about hockey, but I kept flashing back to it as I watched this amazing doubles match today. Every time I watch a doubles match I find myself wondering why it’s not a more integral and promoted part of the sport. Simmons thinks the problem with hockey is that it’s more of a team game than a stars game, which makes it less appealing to advertisers, and I think the same thing is true about doubles. The points are so fast and the variety is so entertaining that it’s really a perfect sport for our brief attention spans. But doubles is more about teamwork, more about momentum, and more about the intangibles than singles. Therefore it’s not only harder to market, it’s harder to write about and make sense of. But hey, I’m going to try.
By now you probably all know that Radek Stepanek and Tomas Berdych teamed together to take the doubles point from Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez, and therefore gave the Czech Republic team a 2-1 lead going into Day 3 of the Davis Cup Finals. But here at The Changeover we don’t want to just tell you that a match was won. There are plenty of other places where you can read AP-style recaps and figure out the ebbs and flows of the match, but we want to go a bit deeper and figure out how and why the match was won.
First of all, let’s start at the end and take a look at the match statistics:
As you can see there is not much between the two teams. The Spaniards had a handful more winners and errors. The Czechs had a slightly higher first service percentage and a slightly lower 2nd serve percentage. Of course it’s very significant that the Czechs converted two more break points than their opponents, but other than that there’s no area where they had a clear advantage. So what was the difference?
In my opinion that’s an easy answer–this match simply came down to experience.
Tomas Berdych is clearly the best singles player (No. 6), but by far has the lowest doubles ranking of No. 119 in the world. All of the other players on the court were in the top 10 in doubles. But when it comes to Davis Cup, Tomas Berdych is used to being the go-to-guy who carries his team in singles and doubles. He was 15-1 coming into this tie in Davis Cup Doubles matches. That’s not bad for a guy who is known for bricking volleys during crucial points in his singles matches.
Of course, Radek Stepanek is no doubles slouch either. He is ranked No. 4 in the world in doubles, and plays such an attacking style in singles that he likely hits more volleys every year than any player in the ATP. And he’s almost 34 years old, so he’s been around the block a time or two. He has a 13-2 record in Davis Cup Doubles play, and the magnitude of the occassion surely is not lost on him. This is probably his last chance to get a Davis Cup trophy, and he gets a chance to fight for it in his home country on the fast indoor courts he loves against a Rafa-less Spain team. There’s no way he’s not going to play his best tennis.
On the flip side, Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez are new to Davis Cup play. Sure, M&M are coming off the biggest doubles title of their career, and have been one of the best doubles teams on the ATP tour this year. But Davis Cup is a different animal. You aren’t just playing for yourself, you’re playing for your country.
While their doubles rankings are superb (No. 6 for Lopez and No. 10 for Granollers) and they clearly earned their spot on the team, the two still have a “lucky to be here” feel about them. They are just not the alpha males on the Spanish Davis Cup team by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, between the two of them they are only 3-5 in Davis Cup Doubles rubbers.
Still, they played a superb match at times. Granollers hit returns that were simply terrifyingly good, and he held serve with ease throughout the first three sets. And Marc–who most think of as the weak link–more than held his own once the points got going. He can lob, he can volley, and he can pummel a forehand when given the opportunity. It’s easy to see how they beat the best doubles teams in the world last year.
The Spaniards started the match with a bang, breaking Stepanek’s service game right off the bat and charging out to a 3-0 lead. M&M were able to hold their ground throughout the set and take the lead 6-3. It looked like they might run away with things. Granollers and Lopez seemed almost relaxed on the court, which is a near impossibility with thousands of people screaming against you and the metaphorical weight of a nation on your shoulders. Granollers would confidently stroll back to the baseline after hitting a winner, even as Berdych was still charging after the ball. Lopez seemed to smile and shrug after every game.
But Berdych and Stepanek stepped it up. Knowing the enormity of the situation can work against you (pressure!) but it can also motivate you. It can take you to new heights. It can elevate your play over fatigue and nerves and superior opponents. Stepanek began to take control of things early in the 2nd set, hitting a shot that I could only describe as a “swooping curveball stretch-volley winner” and getting the early break to go up 3-1. But Berdych faltered on serve next, clearly rattled by Granollers’ killer returns. The set remained on serve until Marc Lopez stuggled to force a tiebreak at the end of the set. Although he and Marcel were able to save 3 set-points with jaw-dropping, highlight-reel, fan-converting play, they just coudn’t get past Berdych from the baseline and Stepanek from the net. The Czechs took the second set 7-5, and firmly grabbed the momentum.
But Lopez and Granollers never completely fell apart. The third set remained on serve until the end, and then it was like deja-vu. With Lopez serving to take it into a tie-break, the Czechs pounced on his inferior serve and stole the set 7-5. Perhaps it was the intensity of the crowd. Perhaps it was the pressure. But whatever it was, in the biggest moments of the match the Spaniards just could not measure up.
After team Spain took their second bathroom break of the match (they also took one after they lost the 2nd set), the fourth set began, and it was a contentious affair. At one point during an intense 2-1 game with Lopez serving, Berdych almost let his volatile nature turn the match. After Granollers hit a beautiful touch volley to even the game up at 30-30, Berdych argued with the umpire Jake Garner for a while, convinced that Granollers had touched the net. Later in the same game he was upset by what he thought was a too-late challenge call. There’s always a sense when Berdych starts to go off the rails that there is going to be no stopping him. He’s so unfiltered, on court and off, that there’s a fear that he find a way self-destruct in any situation. When Lopez ended up holding for 2-2 after a fabulous ping-pong style point, I noted that that it could be a turning point.
Luckily for Berdych, Marcel Granollers bailed him out. In his next service game, Granollers completely went off the grid for the first time all match, and gave the Czechs the final break they needed.
Granollers didn’t blink. He played that whole game with his eyes closed.
— Andrew Burton (@burtonad) November 17, 2012
It was impossible not to note the atmosphere of the benches and wonder if that impacted the match in any way. Every time the camera cut to the Czech bench, Lukas Rosol was on his feet fist-pumping with all his might, giving Berdych and Stepanek the patented Czech icy blue stare of intensity.
The Spanish bench, while obviously supportive and encouraging, was much more laid back. Nico Almagro was eating a lollipop. Feliciano Lopez was laughing with David Ferrer, even in the deciding moments of the match. The Czechs knew that their fate was hanging in the balance in this match, whereas the Spaniards had faith that they could still come through tomorrow.
At the end of this particular day Stepanek and Berdych were just better than Lopez and Granollers when it mattered the most. They took the match 3-6, 7-5, 7-5, 6-3 to put their team up 2-1 and in good shape going into the final day tomorrow.
The Spaniards are still the favorites in both the reverse singles matches tomorrow, but not by a lot. It’s going to be a career defining day for someone. And I say this every single Davis Cup weekend, but this match was an absolute thrill to watch and I wish that doubles had this type of showcase position more often.
(I got through the entire recap without mentioning Radek’s shirt. I deserve a prize.)