The Czech Republic lifted the Davis Cup trophy for only the second time in 2012. In 2013, they were back again, but this time they were away from home and would be facing one of the world’s greatest players.
On Sunday November 17 2013, the Czech Republic’s Radek Stepanek walked on to court for what was arguably the biggest match of his tennis career – the fifth rubber that could retain the Davis Cup for the Czech Republic.
The atmosphere in Serbia’s Belgrade Arena that November was one of anticipation. The home crowds were daring to hope. Just three years after their first and only Davis Cup victory, could Serbia lift the trophy again? It was a golden opportunity – a home tie in Belgrade and an in-form Novak Djokovic at the helm.
Both teams had faced tough semi-finals. For the second year running, the Czechs had overcome Argentina to reach the final, and Serbia had had to fight hard to get through against Canada.
Under the expert eyes of captains Jaroslav Navratil and Bogdan Obradovic, the first match pitted two players of vast experience – 2013 US Open doubles champion, Stepanek against Djokovic, who had won the ATP World Tour finals earlier that month as well as January’s Australian Open, and had reached the final at both Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows. He had spent most of 2013 as world number one, ending the season at number two. It was too tall an order for Stepanek, and Djokovic’s form played out as he took that first match 75 61 64.
Those in the crowd hoping for a fairy tale sweep for the Serbian team were disappointed with the second match as a masterful world top-10 Tomas Berdych dominated Dusan Lajovic and got the Czech Republic back into the tie.
In their first-round Davis Cup tie against Switzerland that year, Berdych teamed up with Lukas Rosol in the doubles. However, in the final it was Stepanek who accompanied Berdych on to court to face Ilija Bozolijac and Nenad Zimonjic. As well as his 2013 US Open title, Stepanek had won the Australian Open in 2012, both times with Leander Paes, and was widely regarded as one of the best doubles players in the world - and, of course, one of the most combative and brilliant in singles too. It was originally thought that Djokovic would play in Saturday’s doubles but his season had been long and hard and there was certainly an argument for resting him ready for Sunday’s singles. And thus in the doubles it was the Czechs who made their mark, taking the first two sets. Serbia forced a tie-break in the third, but it wasn’t enough.
With the final poised at 2-1, Serbian hopes were on Djokovic to work his magic against Berdych. That year, the Czech had beaten Djokovic in the International BNL d’Italia for only the second time in 13 meetings. But once again, the Serb was too strong, and the Davis Cup final was tied at 2-2.
And so, as it had been in the 2012 final, it was all down to Stepanek. The Czech took his place on court to face Lajovic in front of a vocal Serbian crowd. He could have been disarmed by the fervent home support, but he wasn’t. He set to work, taking the first set 63 before finishing 61 61 in the second and third, to take the match and the Davis Cup for a second year running for the Czech Republic.
They have not repeated the feat since, but under the continued watch of Navratil, and with the experience of Jiri Vesely and Lukas Rosol and a young team that has stepped up to replace Berdych and Stepanek, they will be full of confidence as they join France and Great Britain in Group C of the 2021 Davis Cup by Rakuten Finals.