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2009 Davis Cup QF: Czechs look to make history

Posted on July 1, 2009 at 10:45 AM

From official Davis Cup site

01 Jul 2009 - Chris Bowers

Czechs look to make history

All teams want to win Davis Cup by BNP Paribas quarterfinals, but seldom does victory matter so much to the profile of tennis in a nation than it does for the Czech Republic in the forthcoming round of World Group action.

The Czechs are in the last eight for the second year running, but this time they have a home tie against a weakened Argentina side. So will the Cez Arena in Ostrava be the scene of the Czech Republic's first passage to a semifinal since 1996? Everyone connected with attempts to promote tennis in the Czech Republic is fervently hoping so.

Champion nation

Cast your mind back 29 years. In 1980, Czechoslovakia became only the eighth nation on the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Davis Cup to claim the biggest prize in team tennis. With a rising star in Ivan Lendl backed up by such stalwarts as Tomas Smid, Pavel Slozil and the veteran Jan Kodes, the central European nation beat Italy in the final to launch what many believed would be a new golden era in Czechoslovak tennis. A Czech -- albeit one who had defected -- was already at the top of the women's game (Martina Navratilova), and the legacy of the 1960s era of Vera Sukova and... had created an exciting new generation that would make the country a powerhouse of world tennis -- so the thinking went.

Only it never really happened. Despite having players such as Milan Srejber, Miloslav Mecir, Karel Novacek, Petr Korda, Cyril Suk and others (all but the Slovak Mecir were Czechs), Czechoslovakia never reached another final, and 12 years after their sole title, the two nations within a united state agreed to separate. It wasn't until 1994 that the Czech and Slovak Republics played separately in the Davis Cup, and because it had all the top players, the Czech Republic was allowed to keep Czechoslovakia's place in the World Group.

But instead of the Czechs establishing themselves as a top-level tennis nation in their own right, they have only one semifinal to show for their 15 years as a separate country. That was when Korda and Daniel Vacek lost to the Swedish team of Stefan Edberg and Thomas Enqvist in Prague in 1996, and since then, their erstwhile compatriots Slovakia have had more success, reaching the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas final in 2005.

Economic factors

Kodes, the 1993 Wimbledon champion, later Czechoslovak captain and the first president of the Czech tennis association after the break-up of Czechoslovakia, believes economic factors have a large part to play in explaining the Czech Republic's modest performance. "When the communist era ended," he says, "everyone wanted to have their own business " everyone wanted to have a restaurant or some other enterprise, because finally they could. But that meant the parents of talented juniors had no time to give to their children, and if you don't have time to help your children by taking them to coaching and tournaments, they won't do their best.

"In addition, one of the motivations of the Czechoslovak children was that they could travel the world through tennis in a way they could not otherwise, but once the end of communism took away the restrictions on travel, there was less need to be a top sportsman to get out of the country. So these two factors combined to take some of the motivation away, and it led to other sports like football and tennis becoming more attractive to Czechs."

In recent years, the presence of two top-20 players in Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek has given the Czech Republic the basis of a team that can challenge in the World Group of the Davis Cup. Double-handedly, they beat Roger Federer's Switzerland in a playoff tie in 2007, and Berdych's retirement with injury in the fourth rubber of last year's quarterfinal robbed the Czechs of a chance to beat Russia. But that was in Moscow -- this time it's at home against an Argentina side missing David Nalbandian and blooding the untried Leonardo Mayer.

Will Stepanek be fit?

Much will depend on the fitness of Stepanek, who - like Berdych - reached the fourth round at Wimbledon but whose five-sets defeat to Lleyton Hewitt caused the knee condition that had forced him to miss the grass court warm-up tournaments to flare up again. "The Davis Cup is in only two weeks time," said Stepanek after the Hewitt match, "which isn't long. I have to look after myself after what I went through in the last few weeks or I won't be ready."

If Stepanek isn't ready, all is not lost for the home nation. In Lukas Dlouhy, the Czechs have a quality doubles player who won the French Open recently, albeit with a non-Czech partner, Leander Paes. If Dlouhy could partner Berdych, and Berdych could win the all-important fourth rubber against Juan-Martin del Potro, then a first semifinal for 13 years is possible even without Stepanek.

While Stepanek acknowledges that, even without Nalbandian, Argentina will be tough opponents, home advantage means the Czechs have been able to pick a fast indoor court in an arena they know well, having staged three of their last four home ties there. And Berdych said at Wimbledon he was looking forward to playing on a surface that's "pretty fast, very similar to a grass court".

All the work put in by officials in the Czech tennis association could be boosted if Berdych can lead the Czechs to victory. But with the visitors boasting the fifth-best player in the world, it could well go down to the fifth rubber.

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