Lessons Learned

Davis Cup Final, Day One

Ferrer d. Stepanek, 6/3 6/4 6/4

Berdych d. Almagro, 6/3 3/6 6/3 6/7 6/3

The first day of the 2012 Davis Cup final has been completed, with the Czech Republic and the constitutional monarchy of Spain locked at one rubber all. If one was feeling overly wilful or mischievous this could be spun as a political tussle between the old world and the new, between tradition and progress. It’s something for Tomas Berdych to consider, lest he grows short on Spaniard-baiting material, which admittedly seems unlikely to happen. There’s also a chance he is too tired and wary, having narrowly avoided gagging on the heroic portion of humble pie he’d prepared earlier. Perhaps he’s learned a lesson. Part of me hopes not. Still, even if he hasn’t, the rest of us certainly have.

For example, we now know that the Prague crowd expresses its disapproval by whistling, and that what they lack in virtuosity they make up for in raw stamina. Expressing ire through whistling, you may be sure, is a distance event. This was eagerly illustrated when Carlos Ramos failed to correctly award a point to Berdych after the Czech player had successfully challenged a winner called out. Ramos was certainly wrong; the point should have gone to Berdych. For a good twenty minutes the locals pursed their lips and made their feelings known with undiminished gusto, which would swell ominously like the Sirens of Jericho whenever Nicolas Almagro commenced his service motion.

Despite sounding like the stadium was rapidly deflating, it ironically pumped Berdych up. Having appeared flat throughout the second set, he fair bounded through the third. Whistling clearly has its advantages, especially as it proved sufficiently loud to drown out the vuvuzela section. (I don’t know who invented the vuvuzela, but I do kind of wish it was me. I could make a fortune charging people $10 each to punch me in the face.) Before too long it subsided, leaving Berdych so diminished that he first surrendered his lead in the fourth, and then the set itself in a tiebreaker.

It went without saying that an Almagro victory would have put Spain in an overwhelming position, given that they’d already won the opening rubber. Or so I thought. Greg Rusedski did not agree: ‘If Almagro wins, then Spain is in the driver’s seat.’ In the end Berdych did eke out the fifth set, thus technically proving Almagro to be the weaker link, since it’s doubtful whether Berdych on this form would have troubled Ferrer for long. But even so, I’m sure it was a closer run thing than Berdych had envisaged, and it’s hard to think that this hadn’t contributed to the nerves that for a time threatened to paralyse him. Almagro acquitted himself well, in every sense, from his superior serving and aggressive ground game, up to and including his gracious handshake afterwards. It was a lesson in classy behaviour, or at least an example of how politeness can be weaponised. We learned that Reebok has nothing in its current range that comes closer to bandera roja than pink.

We also learned that there’s really not much to say about David Ferrer beating Radek Stepanek in straight sets, but that in the hands of a master analyst like Rusedski this little can be made to go a long way, or at least for a long time. The actual Eurosport commentary during the match had been provided by Frew McMillan and Chris Bradnam, and was thus quite good, although they only referred to Ferrer as ‘underrated’ a handful of times. This was well short of the crushing quota achieved over on the Tennis Channel, whose experts rate him so highly that they struggle to come up with much else to say. Almost everything about him, by their estimation, is not accorded the respect it merits from the broader public.

Keen to verify this for myself, I took to the streets. There weren’t many people around at that hour in Melbourne, but those seedy revellers I did corner eventually confessed that they didn’t rate Ferrer very highly at all, even when I showed them a photo and explained who he was. Some appeared shocked to learn that he has such competent volleys, and that he defends his second serve so well. (None of them hung around long after that, except for one charming transient who insisted he could smell my heartbeat.)

Notwithstanding the scientific validity of my vox pop survey, I still think Ferrer’s underratedness is mostly overrated. He was the clear favourite today, and played like it, despite a minor hitch in the second set when Stepanek came back hard at him. He won in quick time, serving, passing and running remarkably like you’d imagine a world No.5 would, regardless of rating.

Although the result itself clearly thrilled the Spanish team – even yielding them temporary control of that cherished driver’s seat – its brevity won’t have troubled the Czech team too much. Stepanek probably wasn’t going to win anyway, so it’s best he was spared unnecessary toil before the pivotal doubles tomorrow. Whether he’ll partner the weary Berdych could be a dicey question, though, and the Czech team has some thinking to do. I suspect he’ll play, if only to see his devious plan bear fruit. All this Almagro ‘weak link’ talk has been a red herring. It’s really Marcel Granollers they’re after.


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