Czech Republic became the first away team to win the Davis Cup Final in five years as Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek combined to beat Serbia 3-2 in Belgrade.
For the second year in succession, it was Stepanek who assumed the role of hero in the decisive fifth rubber. The 34-year-old, who turns 35 this month, used a wealth of experience at his disposal to defeat Davis Cup novice Dusan Lajovic, who had been thrust into the limelight on the eve of the tie.
|1||Novak Djokovic||vs.||Radek Stepanek||7-5 6-1 6-4|
|2||Dusan Lajovic||vs.||Tomas Berdych||3-6 4-6 3-6|
|3||Bozoljac/Zimonjic||vs.||Berdych/Stepanek||2-6 4-6 6-7(4)|
|4||Novak Djokovic||vs.||Tomas Berdych||6-4 7-6(5) 6-2|
|5||Dusan Lajovic||vs.||Radek Stepanek||3-6 1-6 1-6|
Serbia, led by Novak Djokovic, were fighting an uphill battle from day one.
With their No. 2 Janko Tipsarevic succumbing to a heel injury at the 11th hour and Viktor Troicki, who played an integral role in the Serb’s 2010 triumph, serving an 18-month suspension for missing a drug test, the hosts were down to the bare bones at Belgrade Arena.
But with Djokovic in the side, Serbia always stood a fighting chance, and the world No. 2 got them off to a flier on Friday with victory over Stepanek. Berdych responded for the visitors with a straight-sets win of his own over world No. 117 Lajovic to leave the tie balanced at 1-1 heading into Saturday’s crucial doubles tie.
There were rumours abound that Djokovic would line out alongside doubles specialist Nenad Zimonjic, but captain Bogdan Obradovic went with the tried-and-tested team of Zimonjic and Ilija Bozoljac.
The duo were powerless to stop Berdych and Stepanek, as the Czechs produced a masterful display to take a vital 2-1 lead.
The third set was one of the best sets of doubles I have seen in a long long time, returning exhibition from the Czechs ....— Mahesh Bhupathi (@Maheshbhupathi) November 16, 2013
Stepanek, never one to mince his words, said Obradovic’s decision to leave Djokovic on the sidelines was like "leaving a Ferrari in the garage," per Zoran Milosavljevic of Reuters via Yahoo!.
While Stepanek may have had a point, Djokovic’s experiences on the doubles court have been fairly limited, and even he may have been powerless to slow the Czechs. The Australian Open champion played just three doubles matches in 2013, and his career record is 33-46, per ATPWorldTour.
Djokovic extended his unbeaten streak in singles to 24 matches when he defeated Berdych in the fourth rubber on Sunday to level the tie at 2-2.
But the victory only delayed the inevitable as Stepanek produced an intelligent display of all-court tennis to cruise to victory against Lajovic for the loss of just five games.
No words needed pic.twitter.com/RRi1dpCk6e— Tomáš Berdych (@tomasberdych) November 17, 2013
Before last year, the Czechs had not won a Davis Cup since Ivan Lendl and Co. captured the title in 1980, and now thanks to Berdych and Stepanek the nation have emerged victorious in two consecutive years.
Stepanek is one of those players who excels in team competition. He feeds off the crowd, whether they’re with him or against him, and he thrived in the raucous environment inside the Belgrade Arena.
The great thing about the Davis Cup is that it thrusts lower-ranked players into the limelight, and while some crumble, Stepanek rises.
The world No. 44 joined some illustrious company with his win over Lajovic on Sunday. He became just the third player—after Henri Cochet and Fred Perry—to win two Davis Cup Final live fifth rubbers, according to Jamie Renton at DavisCup.com.
Stepanek said of his achievements:
That’s a beautiful stat, what can I say. I’m indescribably happy. This is the highest [moment of my career]. To win Davis Cup is so far my biggest achievement. I got in Top 10 singles, Top 10 in doubles, I won two Grand Slams, played Masters [events] in singles and doubles. Winning two Davis Cups is just on top of it.
Djokovic was one of 2013’s standout players, and he finished the year in a similar fashion to how he started it.
The Serb, who won the Australian Open back in January, won 24 consecutive matches since losing the U.S. Open final to Rafael Nadal, and he will enjoy some much-needed rest before the new season gets underway in six weeks' time.
Djokovic did all that was asked of him in front of his home crowd at the weekend. Two straight-set wins kept the tie alive for his team, but he was powerless to prevent defeat.
Berdych was expected to beat Lajovic on the opening day, but it was the singles specialist’s performance on the doubles court that will have drawn the most praise.
The world No. 7 is often criticised for tightening up when matches get close, but with Stepanek for company, he looked composed and confident in earning the all-important doubles point on Saturday.