Radek Stepanek deserves high praise for his performance over the last two days against a much younger and highly decorated Andy Murray. In fact, Stepanek deserves a medal.
He didn’t win the five-set battle, which extended over two days due to darkness on Monday. But he put the fear of the almighty into Murray, the second seed of the tournament.
Although Stepanek’s style of play was misconstrued as ‘old-school,’ he, instead, was unpredictable and crafty. He even successfully served-and-volleyed on a second serve. Against one of the best returners in the game, that move took courage and guts.
In the end, the Scot was forced to figure out and implement strategies and tactics that would, and finally, unsettle a player who, at 37, was smart enough and skilled enough to rattle the man who many have said will win the tournament.
Early this afternoon, and finding himself two points from defeat in one moment, Murray finally tipped the balance in his favor. He pulled off the win, 3-6, 3-6, 6-0, 6-3, 7-5. Stepanek’s attempted drop-volley lost the match but drew nothing from his heraldic effort to send Murray home in what would have been perceived as an embarrassing loss. He had not lost in the first round of a major tournament since 2008. Additionally, he has been a semi-finalist in Paris three times.
“I don’t expect to be doing that myself at that age,” Murray said, BBC.com reported. “I’m just glad I managed to through.”
Stepanek’s ranking had slid to 128 before the cut-off for the draw, which forced him to play in qualification. His ranking had slipped even farther due to a severe neck problem, which required surgery. His rise in the ranks to 128, therefore, was a result of commitment, vision and the willingness to play Challenger Tournaments.
“He had an extremely bad injury last year and still at 37 coming out and fighting like that, playing that way. It’s unbelievable,” Murray said.
Although Stepanek is way past the expected age to beat Murray, or any other top 100 player, he did not fade over their five-set battle although commentators on Tennis Channel desperately rendered him as on the brink of failure. Paul Annacone said, “He shouldn’t be trying those types of shots at his age,” after Stepanek botched a backhand leaping volley in the first set. Of course, had he made the shot Annacone’s tune and tone would have reflected the skill and athleticism necessary to make a shot considered one of the toughest in the game.
To reinforce just how difficult the match was, Rafael Nadal defeated Sam Groth of Australia, 6-1, 6-1, 6-1, in the time it took Murray and Stepanek to play a set and a half.
Stepanek turned pro in 1996. His highest ranking in singles peaked at a stellar number eight. He’s played in 16 French Opens and his best performance was in 2008; he made the fourth round. None of those stats compares with the breadth of his passion and competitive nature.
He is currently a member of his country’s Davis Cup Team, which competes in the World Group. He and his compatriots won the Davis Cup in 2012 against Spain and in 2013 against Serbia. His record in singles — 22-10 — is second only to Tomas Berdych — 30-12. The two friends are considered one of the most successful Davis Cup doubles teams, improving to 16-2 in Hannover, Germany, in March.