Welcome to another LIVE edition of How the Match Was Won! Today we have a HUGE match in store: the fifth and final rubber of the Davis Cup final between Spain and the Czech Republic. Nicolás Almagro will battle Radek Stepanek, with one of tennis’ biggest prizes on the line. Stepanek leads the head-to-head 2-1, but Almagro won their most recent encounter earlier this year at the US Open.
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After David Ferrer’s masterful straight-set win over Tomas Berdych, we arrive at the final rubber of this pretty great Davis Cup final between Spain and the Czech Republic. One of the great quirks of Davis Cup is that the fifth rubber is always played by a country’s 2nd best players, and today we get a look at two interesting characters: Nicolás Almagro and Radek Stepanek.
As I wrote yesterday in the Picks, I don’t think Radek Stepanek is at the point of his long career where he can play top shelf tennis for three straight days in a best-of-five setting. Stepanek had a fairly mediocre season in singles (23-26 after Friday’s loss), and he looked way off the pace against Ferrer on Friday. Sure, he’s a wily veteran who knows how to take advantage of the very quick surface. But Stepanek spent quite a bit on energy on Friday and Saturday, while his opponent had the day off during the doubles rubber.
Nicolás Almagro proved that he could unleash his powerful game on the surface laid out at the 02 Arena in Prague during his 5-set loss to Tomas Berdych on Friday. He looked more than able to handle a long match, and had yesterday to recover. Almagro is having probably his best year away from clay, too. The work he’s put in to move better and feel more confident on hard courts has paid off.
How do these two match up? Here are a few tactical points ahead of the match:
1. Stepanek has to serve extremely well today, and look to shorten the points as much as possible. This means coming to net often, both on his serve and on Almagro”s second serve as well. He can’t afford to let Almagro get into a groove from the baseline, because there is no way his tired legs can survive a war from the back of the court.
2. Almagro has to put a ton of pressure on Stepanek’s 2nd serve, and most of all, on Stepanek’s forehand, which is the weaker side of the Czech No.2. The man from Murcia did a great job of attacking Berdych with his own FH, and he should repeat that formula today.
3. Almagro has to keep his cool: he can’t let the crowd get under his skin (like he did in the third set on Friday), and he surely can’t let Stepanek get into his head with all the antics we know the Czech will look to pull out (and which worked in the doubles rubber, where the M&Ms retreated into their shell once Stepanek got the crowd going).
4. Almagro has to start well – he wants to take the crowd out of the match from the start. He does not want to have to rally against a motivated opponent and a loud crowd.
5. Almagro probably won’t benefit from backhand-to-backhand rallies. Stepanek’s more compact stroke is more suited to this surface, and the Czech can go in any direction comfortably off that wing.
6. The Spaniard needs to make this a baseline battle, and push Stepanek away from the net. Once there, he should look to replicate what Ferrer did against Berdych and take away Stepanek’s legs. Make the soon-to-be 34 year-old defend as much as possible.
This is the biggest match of Nicolás Almagro’s life, and it might be the last big one in Stepanek’s long career. Neither is particularly known for their big-match acumen, and while it might be a little late for Stepanek to change that, that’s not the case for Almagro, who gets a chance to reap the rewards of a year-long process to perform better in big matches and better on all surfaces, as detailed here. He’s young enough to be able to carry a big win today into the rest of his career and change the path his tennis career was on until 2012.
Fifth rubbers tend to be nervy affairs – expect a lot of tense moments and short-armed shots today.
Both gentlemen are on the court, and Stepanek seems to have won the coin toss. Smartly, elected to serve
A bummer for today: Jake Garner is the chair umpire. If the crowd gets rowdy, look for him to behave like a scared substitute teacher. Bad call, ITF.
Stepanek will start serving in the 1st set.
0-0: Almagro had made it to 30-all after a nice BH pass, but after being tentative, the Spaniard gets punished when a BH clips the letcord and lets Stepanek move in for a winner. Still, a Stepanek UFE sends us to deuce. A marvelous inside-out BH return winner by Almagro sets up a 1st break point for Spain. That was pretty. Effective S&V by Stepanek saves it. An Ace follows, but so does a FH UFE. Deuce #2. Service winner out wide, AD-CZE. And another seals the game.
The first game of this huge match lasts seven minutes. This kind of rhythm cannot favor Stepanek. Almagro did well to attack with his BH, but he was very tentative at 30-all. No time for hesitation today.
1-0, CZE: We’re back to deuce after Almagro fails to put away a short BH with Stepanek at net. A double fault by Almagro gives the Czech crowd a reason to explode. Early mental test for the Murcia native. However, Stepanek bails him out with a 2nd serve return that ends up in the net. It was a nice body serve, though. Deuce #1. Stepanek gets lucky with a letcord, and it’s break point again. 2nd serve. Stepanek goes for an angled FH from way behind the baseline, and it’s Deuce #2. NERVY. No nerves on Almagro’s arm, as he delivers a big ace up the T. But then nerves do show up for another double-fault. Deuce #3. But another big serve up the T (2nd serve, too) sets up GP, and an ace seals a very nervy test for Almagro.
Almagro double-faulted twice in that game, and dug himself out of the hole. Passed an early test for his nerves. How will Stepanek handle the missed opportunities?
Stepanek is looking to hit drop volleys and drop shots to expose Almagro’s movement. Not a bad idea at all, and he has the touch to make that strategy work.
1-1: Almagro finally gets a good return in play to force a Stepanek error, but it’s after falling behind 40-0. But then Stepanek nets a volley he seemed to be on top of, and it’s 40-30. It’s three good returns in a row by Almagro, and Stepanek nets another FH. Deuce #1. Almagro plays some great defense and is left witha makeable BH pas, and misses by two inches. A significant missed opportunity. But another good return, this time off the FH, and it’s Deuce #2. Almagro gets at least two great looks at passing shots, but goes for the body instead of the open court, and Stepanek hits some good volleys. A good serve marks the hold for the Czech team.
It’s a great sign for Spain that Almagro has been able to get into every single Stepanek service game. Also a great sign? They’re playing more than a few physical points out there, and they’re past the 20 minute mark after just 3 games.
Meanwhile, a valid question:
when will stepanek break out the worm dance: first break, first set win, first sit down changeover? no point saving it #emptytheplaybook
— tennistweets.com (@tennistweetscom) November 18, 2012
2-1, CZE: Almagro with a chance to hold comfortably at 15, but then Stepanek sends a good return to Almagro’s FH, who doesn’t move his feet fast enough. 40-30. Stepanek gets a look at a FH DTL, and does not hesitate to fire the missiles. Deuce #1. Almagro responds with a missile of his own, an Ace up the T. 4th of the match for him. After a rally full of depth, Stepanek’s FH cracks, and Almagro holds.
Tactically, I’m not sure Navratil is happy with how eager Stepanek seems to engage in long rallies. Very few net approaches, too. Stepanek is spending a lot of energy out there.
Meanwhile, another valid question regarding Stepanek:
— Loïc Hustinx (@loichustinx) November 18, 2012
2-2: Now it’s Stepanek with a chance to hold at 15. They exchange CC FHs, and predictably, Stepanek’s FH cracks. 40-30. Almagro goes wide with a FH DTL, and Stepanek is the first man to hold without going to deuce on his serve.
Meanwhile, the World Number One seems to be enjoying his trip to Brazil:
— Dianne (@Champingthebit) November 18, 2012
3-2, CZE: Almagro races to a 40-0 lead, but then promptly double-faults. 3rd of the day, and this is just the sixth game. Just a blip, though, as he pummels FHs until he gets a look at an easy winner.
This is the kind of service game that Almagro needed so he can really push Stepanek and make him feel the pressure on his own serve.
How key is this first set for Almagro? Going down a set after spending so much energy has to be deflating for Stepanek. I’m still surprised by the Czech’s reluctance to come to net more often.
3-3: However, Stepanek does come to net at 30-15, and gets burned by a sensational flick pass by Almagro. The Spaniard then bosses Stepanek around with his FH, repeating the formula he used so efficiently against Berdych, and it’s break point. Stepanek comes up with a big serve out wide, and it’s Deuce #1. Strangely, Stepanek gets the better of a CC FH exchange, trading six of them before Almagro sends one long. AD-CZE, and Stepanek holds after a big serve to Almagro’s FH.
As we near crunch time in this set, Almagro is starting to look a little tense out there, and Stepanek is fist-pumping all over the place, trying his best to get the crowd into the match. Does not bode well for Spain.
Brad Gilbert is a Stepanek fan, apparently:
BTW I like Steps AND his Game; just don’t understand his shirts.
— Brad Gilbert (@bgtennisnation) November 18, 2012
4-3, CZE: After falling behind 0-15 and watching Stepanek botch a chance for 0-30 with a FH UFE, Almagro is up 40-15. The Spaniard holds after a BH UFE by Stepanek.
4-4: As Stepanek’s FH starts to falter, the Czech shows his smarts and aggressively comes to net after going down 0-15 and makes it 40-15 in a hurry. Almagro had a very makeable FH pass at 0-15, but just as he missed then, he sends another FH wide and Stepanek holds.
Mental Test #2 is coming up for Almagro, who will lose the set if he fails to hold in the next game. No margin for error anymore. He has to serve well, and be aggressive with his FH. Can’t afford to hesitate.
Tomas Johansson weighs in:
Stepanek-Almagro have played for 45 min and they are still in the first set. They will probably kill each other out there…
— Thomas Johansson (@TompaSthlmOpen) November 18, 2012
5-4, CZE: Almagro sends a FH wide, and it’s 15-30. However, he steps in and unleashes some inside-out FHs and forces Stepanek’s error. 30-all. HUGE POINT COMING. The crowd calls an Almagro shot out, but the men keep playing until Stepanek hits a very good DTL FH to set up Set Point. 2nd serve coming up. Stepanek gets a huge return in play, forces Almagro’s error, and the Czech Republic wins their first set of the day.
How key was that return on set point? As in the Berdych match, Almagro paid for not being able to come up with 1st serves early. And in the end, it was his FH that cracked in the big moment, not Stepanek’s.
The crowd is going nuts, and Stepanek will surely feed off it. Almagro now faces a must-win set.
First set stats:
0-0: Stepanek holds to 15 with a beauty of a BH passing shot to clinch the game. Runs to his chair, full of energy. The crowd is going nuts, and Almagro seems to be lost at sea.
1-0, CZE: Almagro overcomes some early yips and goes up 40-15, but Stepanek’s great return eventually pegs him back to 40-30. Another great Stepanek return, and it’s Deuce. Almagro then loses yet another CC FH exchange (a very bad thing for him and Spain), and Stepanek has a break point. Stepanek floats around hitting great shots, but decides to go for a BH DTL winner from a bad angle. A bad miss, I think. Plus, he never looked to come to net and force Almagro to come up with a great pass. Deuce #2. Almagro sends a BH UFE long, and Stepanek gets another crack at it. However, Stepanek stays back, and sends a FH DTL into the net. He will regret not making his way forward on these BPs. Deuce #3. An Almagro ace gets challenged, but it’s unsuccessful. Spain with a chance to escape. However, Almagro misses a FH DTL that was wide open for him, and it’s Deuce #4. Another Stepanek mistake – on an Almagro 2nd serve, and Spain has yet another chance to escape a nasty bind. Deuce #5, as Almagro is slow to set up for a BH after a good Stepanek return. And now the pair play the point of the match so far. Stepanek made his way forward, and put away a difficult overhead, and a beauty of a drop volley. Break point again. Almagro comes up huge with a bomb up the T, and it’s Deuce #6. How big is this game for both of these guys? Big inside-out FH by Almagro, who again has a chance to escape this tough game, which is reaching the 11 minute mark. Stepanek sends a return long, and Spain and Almagro have survived.
— Win or Lose, I WIN (@WinOrLoseIWin) November 18, 2012
Mark that last game with your highlighter. Stepanek had 3 break points, and you could argue that he botched at least two of them. Will he pay for it?
1-1: Well, Stepanek won’t pay for those missed opportunities yet! The Czech holds at love for the first time in the match, fulfilling once again Law of Life No. 5: “After a long one comes inevitably a short one”.
2-1, CZE: The crowd goes nuts after the first point, when Almagro blasts a FH well after Stepanek’s shot had been called out. Rather unnecessary. Why get the crowd MORE into the match? After a few nervy points, we’re at 30-all. Stepanek’s BH is starting to do a lot of damage, particularly DTL, forcing Almagro to defend, and setting up easy shots for Stepanek’s FH. Almagro survives a fantastic BH return by Stepanek when he connects on a FH pass off a Stepanek overhead, forcing a Stepanek miss at net. And then Almagro screams as he rips a BH DTL winner to hold. What a beautiful shot.
It was nice to see Almagro show some positive emotion out there. Earlier we saw Stepanek grimace rather wearily – is the Czech starting to feel the toll of the match?
2-2: Stepanek challenges a 2nd serve that was called out, but he’s wrong. The double makes it 0-30, and this is the first time in a while that Almagro has gotten into a Stepanek service game. Almagro throws away a challenge as Stepanek fires an ace. 15-30. The Czech does some S&V to Almagro’s BH, and the Spaniard connects beautifully with his CC BH, forcing a Stepanek volley long. 15-40. HUGE CHANCE FOR SPAIN. And…Almagro does all the running, finishing with a short FH pass…and short arms into the net. Such a nervous shot by Almagro, and such a waste of hustle. A Stepanek serve gets called out (it was close), but Stepanek can’t challenge. Stepanek then S&Vs to Almagro’s BH yet again, and once more he gets burned by a fantastic return by Almagro. Break for Spain!
The tide seems to have turned, and Stepanek’s sudden willingness to S&V tells me he’s starting to feel his legs fading. I don’t understand why he kept serving to Almagro’s BH – the Spaniard has put any number of good returns off that wing all match.
Tommy Haas is pumped up!
This is what Davis cup is all about. Couldn’t be more exciting to watch. Who do you guys pick to win?
— Tommy Haas (@TommyHaas13) November 18, 2012
3-2, ESP: Almagro with an emphatic hold to 15, capped by his seventh ace. Exactly what he needed.
4-2, ESP: Stepanek races to a 40-love lead – exactly what he needed after losing two straight games. Holds with a service winner to Almagro’s FH.
4-3, ESP: Almagro throws away another challenge and falls behind 15-30, when he thought a Stepanek CC FH was wide. It was well in. Stepanek comes to net, solves Almagro’s first pass, and then forces Almagro to hit a tough FH DTL that doesn’t come close to clearing the net. 15-40, seemingly out of nowhere. Stepanek comes to net, and this time Almagro nails the inside-out FH pass. 30-40. Almagro then has a floater that he rushes into hitting straight at Stepanek, and moments later, Stepanek passes him at net. Back on serve.
That was quite a sloppy game by Almagro, capped by a silly mistake on BP. He had double-faulted earlier. Stepanek roars back to life.
4-4: Stepanek with a very tired-looking DF, and it’s 0-30 in a hurry. However, Stepanek comes in after his 2nd serve and puts away the 2nd volley. Stepanek comes to net again, but sends a FH volley wide. Gimmelstob calls it a “choke-y” mistake. 15-40. Stepanek comes up with a big slider, and it’s 30-40. More S&V from Stepanek, this time putting away a very nice FH CC volley. Deuce #1. More big serves, too: a big one up the T, and Stepanek is very close to escaping a very dangerous game. The Czech comes to net after his serve once again, and Almagro sends a FH CC pass long after Stepanek’s first volley.
Another key game to mark down – Stepanek looked supremely gassed. Losing his serve then would’ve been a killer blow, particularly after working hard to get the break back.
Stepanek playing incredible S and V tennis circa 1980’s…Last time Czech team won the Davis Cup was 1980…
— Rob Koenig (@RobKoenigTennis) November 18, 2012
Enormous mental test for Almagro now – same as in the 1st set, no margin for error now. Losing this set after having the break advantage would be absolutely devastating.
5-4, CZE: At 30-all, Almagro comes with his best shot of the match. An incredible get from an angled drop volley by Stepanek. That was nuts. And it comes at a huge point of the match. Both men stare at each other after it, exchange some pleasantries. Almagro wastes the momentum, though, and sends a BH UFE long. Deuce #1. Stepanek completely outmaneuvers Almagro and finishes with a CC BH winner. Set point for the Czech Republic. Almagro got embroiled in a CC BH exchange that netted him absolutely nothing. Almagro then comes up with an incredible body serve. 2nd serve, too. Jammed Stepanek completely. Deuce #2. Almagro sends another BH UFE long, and it’s Set Point #2 for Stepanek. Almagro is forced in by Stepanek’s short return, and thanks to his good approach, Stepanek sends a pass long. Deuce #3. Stepanek is not happy when a FH of his goes long, but he can’t do anything about it – he’s been devoid of challenges for the better part of this set. Hawk-eye does show that shot to be long, though. AD-ESP, for the first time. Stepanek comes to net, but can’t handle Almagro’s missile of a FH pass. Huge hold for Spain.
Almagro passes the mental test! Now, how will Stepanek handle the disappointment of watching those set points go by? Can Almagro make him pay for it?
At least Stepanek is now coming to net more. The points aren’t taking that long now.
5-5: Stepanek puts some good serves in play, keeps moving forward and holds to 15. All the pressure is back on Almagro’s shoulders, who has to hold to force a tiebreak.
6-5, CZE: In about two seconds, Almagro is down 0-30. Comes up with a beauty of a slider that Stepanek wishes he could challenge. 15-30. Almagro does well with a tough BH pass, but once again comes up short with the 2nd FH pass. Misses it wide, and it’s 15-40. Double set point for Stepanek. Good out-wide-inside-out-FH-combo, and the set point is averted. BOMB OUT WIDE. That was absolutely CLUTCH by Almagro. What a moment for that ace. Deuce #1. Stepanek with the FH UFE, and it’ AD-ESP. After they trade UFEs, it’s back to AD-ESP. A beauty of a CC BH forces Stepanek’s error, and we’re going to a breaker.
0-0: 2nd serve for Stepanek. But what an incredible volley by Stepanek, who walks gingerly off the court. Seems to have hurt his leg in some way. It was an incredible BH stretch volley by him.
1-0, CZE: Almagro frames a FH after hitting some pretty strong ones just before. Minibreak to the Czechs.
2-0, CZE: Another FH UFE by Almagro, when he was fully in control of the point. He seemed tentative, not going all out when he had the chance. He who hesitates, loses.
3-0, CZE: Another short FH for Almagro, and another FH UFE. He challenges, but it was out. Unbelievable how it’s Almagro’s FH and not Stepanek’s the one that’s cracking.
4-0, CZE: Almagro gets another look at a makeable FH, and he nets it. Amazing. What a collapse.
5-0, CZE: Stepanek with a fantastic BH DTL return, and then puts away the easy volley. 6 set points for Stepanek.
6-0, CZE: Stepanek clinches the set with an incredible CC BH winner. He’s left it all out there, and took full advantage of Almagro’s collapse.
Just before the breaker started, Fernando Verdasco tried to send some Twitter support to Almagro:
— Fernando Verdasco (@FeVerdasco7) November 18, 2012
Now it’s an EXTREMELY difficult task for Almagro, but yet…given how much energy Stepanek has spent, not impossible. So agreed, Verdasco.
Horrific breaker for Almagro. That might be an understatement.
Third set stats:
0-0: Two stoned volleys and a BH UFE later, and it’s 0-40. Red alert for Spain. First break point is saved by a good serve up the T. Another service winner, and it’s 30-40. A wild BH return off a 2nd serve by Almagro, and it’s Deuce. More confident play from Almagro, and he holds.
MARK THAT ONE DOWN. It seemed like it was all falling apart for Almagro and Spain, but the Murcia man survives.
I’d like to think that hold means something, but based on Almagro’s play at the end of sets, I think it just delays the inevitable.
— amylu (@amylu_sports) November 18, 2012
1-0, ESP: Almagro repeats his “two good forehands, the third one not so much” pattern, and it’s 40-15 for Stepanek. Holds after a big serve up the T.
1-1: Almagro comes up with yet another big serve up the T at 30-all. But then Almagro botches two straight overheads, first by hitting straight at Stepanek, and then by smashing the ball into the net. Deuce #1. Stepanek runs around and fends off an Almagro overhead again, but bails Almagro out by hitting a pretty poor dropper to hand Spain a game point. Almagro holds after putting away a short BH.
I’m down to making Almagro FH jokes, apparently:
— Carmen (@Carmen_Alcalde) November 18, 2012
— TC (@tjc05) November 18, 2012
buried 6 feet under! RT @juanjo_sports: Almagro’s FH will star in the next episode of CSI: Spain. As the corpse.
— 15lovetennis (@15lovetennis) November 18, 2012
2-1, ESP: Surprisingly, Almagro finds himself with a break point at 30-40, but Stepanek fends it off with a big ace. However, Almagro comes knocking again with a huge BH DTL, and it’s BP #2. An ace seems to have erased it, but Almagro challenges it. Nope, it was an ace. Almagro stomps around, losing his mind. For no good reason. Deuce #2. Almagro hits 2 great FHs, forces Stepanek’s error, and here comes another BP. Big serve out wide, return floats long. Deuce #3. Almagro gets a chance at a very open BH DTL pass, nets it. GP, CZE. 2nd serve. Awesome re-directed BH winner by Stepanek to escape. Was that Spain’s last stand?
2-2: After yet another Almagro UFE, we’re at 30-all. However, a nice CC BH forces the error from Stepanek. 40-30. A thumper out wide seals it.
3-2, ESP: After Stepanek badly hooks a FH, it’s 30-all. Crunch time here. Almagro hits a beauty of a BH DTL pass, and it’s 30-40. BP again for Spain. Stepanek cracks! He sends a BH DTL long on the 2nd ball, and Spain has the break!
Just before that breakthrough, this exchange:
@juanjo_sports nothing is inevitable in DC. Not even inevitability itself.
— Zafar (@hypotemuse) November 18, 2012
4-2, ESP: Almagro barely avoids going down 15-40 after Stepanek clobbers a return that barely misses the baseline. After that, he bombs a serve up the T, and it’s 40-30. Bomb out wide to hold and consolidate the break.
Is there life in Almagro? Can he turn this around?
SOMEONE GIF THAT. Almagro holds, chucks the ball in the air like “no fucks given.” #haterstotheleft
— Jeff D. (@jdsquaredd) November 18, 2012
5-2, ESP: Almagro hit a beauty of a BH return winner, but Stepanek makes it 40-30 after a good serve. However, Almagro dumps a 2nd serve return into the net, and he will now try to serve out this set and send us to a fourth.
5-3, ESP: This huge mental test starts well for Almagro, who collects an easy point after a good serve. 15-0. He then gives back the advantage with a BH UFE. An ace restores the edge, 30-15. Gimmelstob says Almagro is the 4th most prolific “acer” on tour this year. Did he pass someone? He was #5 before this tie started. Service winner, double set point. Stepanek saves the first one with a fantastic inside-out BH return winner. Great shot. Almagro then pummels a BH and a couple of FHs, and finally forces Stepanek’s error. We’re onto a fourth set!
Almagro is alive! He has no margin for error, and will serve second in the fourth set, so he has to be ultra protective of his serve. At the same time, he has to amp up the pressure on Stepanek’s serve, particularly when he gets a look at 2nd serves. And when it’s a neutral rally, Almagro has to be single-minded about attacking. It doesn’t even matter in which direction: Stepanek will start to feel the wear and tear regardless.
3rd set stats:
Stepanek will start serving in the 4th set.
0-0: After Almagro is unlucky with a letcord that sends a BH of his long, Stepanek sends a good serve to clinch the hold to 15.
Big hold for Stepanek. Does he have the legs to keep coming to net and putting pressure on Almagro? Or will he save that for the big points and the potential 5-4 game?
1-0, CZE: Almagro double-faults, and he’s down 15-30. He has no margin for error now. Stepanek makes him pay immediately, by pushing him back with a great return, and putting away an inside-out FH. 15-40, double break point. HUGE POINTS FOR THE CZECHS. Almagro sends the second ball long with his FH (surprise, surprise), and the Czechs have jumped to a 2-0 lead!
Another sloppy service game costs Almagro dearly. This is the kind of game you can’t afford to have in big matches. Hence why he’s won so few of those in his life.
2-0, CZE: More sloppiness from Almagro, whose FH is back to undead territory, and Stepanek is up 40-0 in a hurry. An ace seals it.
3-0, CZE: Almagro arrives to 40-15, but he dumps yet another FH UFE into the net. 40-30. Stepanek yanks Almagro wide, comes in and puts away a nice volley. Deuce. Stepanek bails Almagro out, by dumping a 2nd serve BH return into the net. AD-ESP. Almagro holds after a fantastic BH DTL winner off a CC BH by Stepanek.
Almagro is only a break behind, but the scoreboard makes it look more ominous than it seems. He has to get some returns in play, though.
3-1, CZE: Almagro forces a 30-all stand with a great lunging DTL FH that Stepanek volleys wide. HUGE POINT COMING UP. Almagro runs around his BH, but the letcord sends his shot wide. 40-30. Stepanek comes in, hits a good volley, and then puts away an overhead.
4-1, CZE: Almagro wins a CC FH exchange for once, setting up 40-15. And after the Spaniard blasts a CC BH and an inside-in FH, it’s Stepanek who comes up with a gorgeous running FH DTL winner. 40-30. However, Almagro bombs a FH CC, and puts away a volley.
Enormous game coming up. Then again, they all are at this point. No margin for error for Spain. A little bit of margin of error for the Czechs.
4-2, CZE: Almagro loses his cool after yet another of his shots is called out by the crowd. The bigger problem? Almagro send the next shot well long. SUBSTITUTE TEACHER TIME, STARRING JAKE GARNER!!! 15-0. At 15-all, an INSANE volley by Stepanek, who lunged into the ground to dig that one up. Even crazier, he got up and covered the oncoming pass (that went long). That was nuts. 30-15. A good serve out wide results in an easy volley, and it’s 40-15. Almagro blasts a FH return, and it’s 40-30. Almagro then is patient and waits to line up a CC BH pass, and it’s deuce. A surprising deuce. It all seemed set and done at 40-15. Almagro then botches a BH pass, which was harder than the earlier one, and it’s AD-CZE. Stepanek’s 2nd serve gets obliterated by Almagro’s BH, and it’s Deuce #2. Two big serves later, and Stepanek clinches an ENORMOUS hold.
— Lindsay Gibbs (@linzsports) November 18, 2012
Almagro no longer has to keep it together – he needs to come up with something special to get the break back and somehow force a fifth set.
5-2, CZE: Two horrible Almagro FH UFEs, and it’s 15-30. Stepanek has a look at an open BH DTL, and misses it by quite a bit. 30-all. A long rally ends with, you guessed it, an Almagro FH UFE into the net. Match point. Championship point. Davis Cup point. Almagro saves it after going on the attack and putting away a tricky BH smash. Deuce. Almagro frames a FH, but it somehow lands in. Stepanek misjudges the pace, and his FH is into the net. AD-ESP. Stepanek sends a BH into the net, and Spain is still alive.
Stepanek will serve for the Davis Cup. Chew on that for a bit.
5-3, CZE: Almagro plays the point perfectly…until he has a second inside out short FH to put away. Then he dumps it in the net. 15-0. Stepanek, Mr. Clutch, double-faults. 15-all. NERVY. VERY NERVY IN PRAGUE. A huge BH return up the middle can’t be handled by Stepanek, and it’s 15-30. HUGE ACE OUT WIDE by Stepanek. HUMONGOUS. 30-all. 2 points away. Huge serve out wide, and it’s Davis Cup Point yet again. Almagro survives a tricky body serve, but then dumps a BH UFE into the net. Tame. Very tame.
Huge kudos to Radek Stepanek, who at almost 34 years of age played three straight days, and survived an absolute grind of a match to win what will probably be the biggest trophy in his cabinet. He gets to be a national hero now.
Funny how the week started, with Berdych doing the trash-talking. Stepanek, with his play in the doubles and his clutch win in the decider, ended up walking the walk.
Cheers to that.
As for Almagro…this one will hurt for a long, long time. He was up a break in the 2nd set, gave up the lead, and then absolutely imploded in the tiebreaker. Yes, he came back and won the third, but that was too little, too late.
I think the tactical mistake on his side was not going for more angled FHs, like he did against Berdych. He seemed hell bent to rally to Stepanek’s FH and wait out or the error. That ended more often than not with an error of his own. In general, Almagro seemed more worried about making Stepanek run around rather than attacking him to win the points on his own terms. You’d think that he would become more purposeful when he fell behind in the 4th set, but that was not the case. He left bullets in the chamber, and that’s the worst kind of feeling you can have.
What’s worse, a win today would’ve changed his life and his own perception of himself. The person who once claimed that he shouldn’t be considered one of the top 400 Spanish players would’ve deserved place of honor among Davis Cup heroes. And Almagro had a great opportunity: he was playing someone he beat on fast court earlier in the year, and he was playing him after a day’s rest, when Stepanek played for two days in a row. Couldn’t ask for a better scenario.
Sometimes, sports can be very cruel.
4th set stats: