|Posted on December 1, 2009 at 10:58 AM|
Press conference in Barcelona on Tuesday, December 1, 2009
01 Dec 2009 - Palau Sant Jordi, Barcelona - Emily Forder-White
Cool, calm and collected
Friday’s start of play couldn’t come any sooner for the Czechs. At least because it will bring a bit of warmth.
“We have blue hands after practice but it doesn’t bother us, we laugh about it and it’s the same for both teams!” says Czech Republic's Radek Stepanek.
The drop in temperature is surprising everyone in Barcelona and it’s winter coats and scarves galore inside the Palau Sant Jordi, site of the 2009 Davis Cup by BNP Paribas Final. “Hopefully with 16,000 people in the stadium it will be a little bit warmer!” remarked Czech captain Jaroslav Navratil at Tuesday’s pre-draw press conference.
Ever since Stepanek and teammate Tomas Berdych won the doubles rubber over Croatia in September’s semifinal, sending Czech Republic into its first Davis Cup Final in 29 years, the surprise finalists have talked of nothing but the crucial three days this weekend that could be a groundbreaking moment for Czech tennis.
Naturally they are the underdogs against three-time Davis Cup champion Spain, who are playing at home on clay and with world No. 2 Rafael Nadal at the helm, but the Czechs nevertheless are positive, excited and most of all, ready, for the opportunity at stake.
“We are feeling great. We still have three days to get used to the conditions and get the preparations done and everything is going well without any problems,” said Stepanek, in jovial mood. “The stadium is very nice,” added Navratil, “the court especially is perfect and much much better than for the semifinal in Porec.”
The Czechs have a very fixed line-up for this weekend with Navratil once again relying on world No. 12 Stepanek and Berdych in singles and doubles. The two have clinched all nine live rubbers this year to lead the Czechs to this weekend’s final, but apart from Nadal, the visitors are not yet sure who Spanish captain Albert Costa will choose as his second singles player, No. 9 Fernando Verdasco or No. 18 David Ferrer.
For Stepanek it’s not a huge concern. “Both are great claycourt players. I played David and Fernando a couple of times so I know what to expect. We know all the players are at a great level on clay, we expect every match to be tough.”
Berdych on the other hand, as the team’s No. 2, already knows that he will be facing Spain’s No. 1 Nadal on Friday and was asked by the media how he is preparing for the onslaught from the leftie King of Clay.
“It’s going to be tough to find the keys,” said the world No. 20, who has lost his last four matches against Nadal. “For me the most important thing is to bring a little more than 100% of my game to the court, then there is a chance to beat Rafa. Definitely I’m not going to be the favourite, but I’m going to be there on the court trying my best.”
Berdych and Stepanek have shown incredible mental strength this Davis Cup season and this will be the key to beating Spain this weekend. Shoulder to shoulder they ousted big nations France, Argentina and Croatia to reach this stage, and survived some immense matches on the way. Berdych came from two-sets-to-one down to defeat Juan Monaco in Czech Republic’s quarterfinal against Argentina, and had another five-set battle over Marin Cilic in Croatia, and no one can forget the five hour 59 minute 67 76 76 67 16-14 marathon that Stepanek had to endure to defeat Ivo Karlovic – and his 78 aces - in the semifinals.
Until only last year, Berdych was undefeated in five-set matches, and the 24 year old also holds an incredible 8-0 record in Davis Cup doubles. No one can deny that these two are fighters, and with some potential tight matches looming this weekend, Berdych and Stepanek are in a strong position.
“If it takes ten hours to win the match and bring the point for our team, I will be there for ten hours,” says Stepanek. “You have to be mentally strong, especially in the moments when the matches could go either way. When you feel the pressure, you have to stay focused and not show the negative emotions to the other guy. I’m strong inside, I’m not just playing it, I know I’m strong and I’m proving it even when I’m playing six hour matches.”
Stepanek’s Davis Cup story has been the stuff of dreams. Having chosen not to play for three years due to disagreements with the Czech federation, Stepanek finally returned in 2007 for the Czech Republic’s World Group Play-off against Switzerland, led by Roger Federer. He lost the opening rubber to Federer but with Berdych, won the doubles against Federer and Allegro from two-sets down.
The following day, with the tie poised at 2-2, Stepanek lined up against Stanislas Wawrinka for the winner takes all match and played through excruciating knee pain to defeat the Swiss in three sets and seal Czech Republic’s place in the 2008 World Group. Since then, he has played in every single one of Czech Republic’s Davis Cup ties and has never looked back. “We are here to fulfil our dream and I have been preparing for this moment,” he told the press.
After his semifinal finish at the Paris Masters, Stepanek flew to Florida to prepare for the final with coach Petr Korda and also his conditioning coach, before the whole Czech team convened in Barcelona last week. While they were enjoying the warmer weather here, Nadal and Verdasco were having a disappointing week at the ATP World Tour Finals in London, where neither Spaniard failed to win a single match. But the Czechs aren’t jumping any guns, and still believe that the speculative crisis of confidence hitting Spain’s number one man at the moment is completely irrelevant to this weekend’s season finale.
And what of Lukas Dlouhy, the only man here to win two Grand Slam titles this year? The doubles world No. 6 and Roland Garros and US Open doubles champion hasn’t played a live rubber in Davis Cup for over two years, and with the fixture of Berdych and Stepanek, isn’t likely to this weekend.
“Actually I’m enjoying watching the guys winning!” Dlouhy said. “For the Davis Cup everything is different because it’s all about the team. I’m really happy for them.”