The Report Card hands out grades for the week in tennis. This week saw the Czech Republic defeat Spain for the Davis Cup crown.
Hopman Cup? Czech. Fed Cup? Czech. Davis Cup? Czech.
It's been an incredible year for the Czech Republic, which has a storied tennis tradition dating to the days of Ivan Lendl and Martina Navratilova, as the nation has dominated the international team competitions in 2012. As a bevy of Czech legends watched, including Lendl and Jana Novotna, the two-man team of Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek brought home the Davis Cup title with a pure display of teamwork.
Radek Stepanek: A-plus. He's not everyone's cup of tea. You either love Stepanek's flair for the dramatic or you think it's unnecessary gamesmanship. His penchant for wearing shirts with lions on them is either endearing or a complete and utter eyesore. And you can find his game, which is built on an attacking style that looks to finish at the net, a breath of fresh air or a relic. But it's unlikely you'll find many fans who have no opinion of Stepanek. He loves the stage, the crowd and the occasion. And that's why he's now a national hero.
In the biggest match of his career, the 33-year-old Czech stalwart embraced the pressure, the venue and the moment, defeating Spain's Nicolas Almagro in the decisive fifth rubber 6-4, 7-6 (0), 3-6, 6-3 to give the Czech Republic its first Davis Cup title since it became an independent nation in 1993. You couldn't ask for more from Stepanek over the weekend, as he led the way in doubles with Tomas Berdych to earn a much-needed point on Saturday. Then on Sunday, with Berdych unable to topple David Ferrer to clinch the title, it fell on the No. 37-ranked Stepanek to knock off Almagro, who would have finished the year ranked No. 10 with a victory.
With a strong assist from the quick indoor courts in Prague, Stepanek improved to 3-1 against Almagro. Stepanek's heady combination of well-timed attacking and great side-to-side defense forced Almagro to play that one more shot. Stepanek said he hoped his creaky knees would be able to hold up over the course of three straight days of play, and they did, as he was as spry as he needed to be to get into Almagro's head and force errors.
And how about this diving volley in the fourth set, and then the wherewithal to get up to force Almagro to go for too much?
Robbie Koenig, former player turned commentator, relayed this story about Stepanek. It goes to show just how big this moment was for the guy.
Stepanek didn't just win MVP on the court. He absolutely owned the post-match celebration. Every celebratory cliché was in there: the dog pile, the WAG hug, jumping the net, whooping around the court, the shirt tear. You can't say the guy didn't savor the moment.
Tomas Berdych: B-plus. You can't win one of these trophies all by yourself. The last man to win three live rubbers in a Davis Cup final was Pete Sampras in 1995 against the Russians. Having secured the Czech Republic's first point in a five-set win over Almagro on Day 1, Berdych teamed up with Stepanek to secure another point in doubles. But Berdych's dream of clinching the title for the Czechs and ending his year 11-0 in Davis Cup singles came to a merciless halt at the hands of Ferrer, who won 6-2, 6-3, 7-5.
In the end, it didn't matter. Berdych's trash-talking before the event -- he called Almagro the weak link of the team and offered little respect for the Spanish doubles team of Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez -- proved prophetic. The Czechs got all three points by beating those men. Could this title propel Berdych in 2013? It's not out of the question.
Nicolas Almagro: C. The post-match scenes said it all. There was Almagro, the odd man out for so many years when it came to the Spanish Armada, sitting alone on the bench as his teammates stood at their seats and the Czechs roared in celebration. It's hard to judge visuals, but it struck me as a disappointing display of camaraderie by Almagro's teammates, who didn't make a move to console him or offer words of encouragement after the match.
The fact is, Almagro played his heart out over the weekend despite getting a vote of no-confidence from his own teammate, Feliciano Lopez, who openly questioned captain Alex Corretja's decision to play Almagro over him. Add to that the whole "weak link" talk from Berdych and there had to have been some cloudy moments in Almagro's head. Yet he pushed Berdych to five sets on Day 1, keeping the Czech on the court for four hours, and fought back against Stepanek to force a fourth set. But he was out of his element on these courts and in the end the pressure proved too much.
David Ferrer: A. Like I said, you can't win one of these things by yourself. Ferrer was responsible for both of Spain's points, failing to drop a set all weekend as he beat Stepanek and Berdych. Of all the Spaniards, he received the loudest ovation from the Czech crowd during the trophy ceremony, a sure sign of the respect he'd earned through the weekend. With Rafael Nadal sitting out most of the year, it was Ferrer who got the Spaniards into the final, going 6-0 in singles and dropping only two sets.
Feliciano Lopez: D. It's one thing to get dissed by the opposition, but you shouldn't have to deal with your own teammates questioning your place on the team, too. But that's what happened to Almagro, as Lopez complained before the tie that he should have gotten the nod over Nico. Never mind the fact that Lopez is ranked almost 30 places below Almagro, hasn't played a single Davis Cup match all year and finished the season on a three-match losing streak on indoor hard courts, the very surface on which the final was played. Oh, and let's not forget his 2-7 record against Stepanek. Lopez may have had a point regarding his matchup with Berdych -- he leads the head-to-head 4-3 -- but was that enough to cause internal team discord? Nope.
Alex Corretja: B. It's hard to fault Corretja's decision to go with Almagro over Lopez. He says if he had to choose all over again he would have gone with the same four players. But so much of being a Davis Cup captain is about personality management, and this Spanish team never jelled. Maybe it's the clash of personalities, personal baggage or the scourge of cliques, but if a player feels comfortable throwing his teammate under the bus and questioning the captain's decision-making a few days before the final, there's a problem.
Hopman Cup: B-plus. No one really takes Hopman Cup that seriously as an international competition. It's more of an exhibition than anything else. But you wouldn't know that after this weekend, as the Czech Republic's sweep of Hopman Cup, Fed Cup and Davis Cup -- the first country to complete the ITF treble -- meant Hopman Cup got elevated in stature. That's some nice publicity for the tournament, even if a bit misguided. Davis Cup: B. The format is flawed, the players find it a chore and fans complain of Davis Cup fatigue. But the competition thrives in spite of itself. We saw it this weekend with the packed O2 Arena in Prague, loud and rowdy with drums and thundersticks in full force. We saw how much it means to the likes of Stepanek and Berdych, two guys who probably aren't going to win any of the Big Four titles in this sport, walking away as national heroes with one of the toughest trophies to win. Those scenes shouldn't distract from the fact that the competition format is broken and has to change soon. The ITF's coffers aside, why can't we do this every two years, staggered so as to not interfere with the Olympics? I love Davis Cup, but how can I miss you if you won't go away?