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Novak Djokovic given big fright by veteran Stepanek

Radek Stepanek and Novak Djokovic share a hug after their epic encounter
by Alix Ramsay
Wednesday 25 June 2014

Novak Djokovic is through to the third round – that is the good news for him – but he is not happy. He had the mother and father of all struggles to get the better of Radek Stepanek, more than three hours of nerve-racking, sinew-snapping angst to beat a man he has beaten many times in the past so, no, he was not happy at all.

In the end, he got the job done 6-4, 6-3, 6-7, 7-6 but it did little for his confidence. Djokovic had come to Wimbledon with no competitive grass court play under his belt. His opening round had been simple enough but it had taken no time at all and he dropped just five games. That gave him no time to adapt to the conditions and then, straight away, he was pitched in to play that wily old campaigner Stepanek.

Stepanek is not what you might call a novice. He has been working at this tennis business for the best part of 19 years and the polite term for his status in the locker room is “mature”. There may come a day when he thinks of quitting, hanging up the racket - perhaps when his age (currently 35) matches his ranking (38) - but maybe not.

He keeps himself supremely fit and playing a type of tennis most thought had been consigned to the history books, he is still able to give anyone a run for their money. He is strong enough to hang in with the baseline rallies so beloved of the modern players but that is not really his style. No, Stepanek likes to attack, to chip and charge, to serve and volley. He uses spin and slice, he creates angles and space and he makes winners out of nothing. He plays shots that some of the younger players have only read about in books and that can frazzle the nerves of even the best.

For most of the first set, Stepanek’s unique brand of play was keeping Djokovic at arm’s length. The world No.2 was his usual powerful, athletic self but whenever he thought he had walloped a winner, there was Stepanek, flinging himself about at the net.

There were reflex volleys, deft touches and the one that drove Djokovic nuts: the half-volley. In theory, there was no way a 35-year-old bloke ought to be pulling off some of these shots but time and again there was Stepanek, digging out a ball from the grass roots and directing into a place where Djokovic wasn’t. It was great fun to watch if you did not happen to be Novak Djokovic.

“It was fun to be a part of on the one side,” Djokovic said, still kicking himself after the match for his lapses, “but, on the other side, I should have not complicated my life in the way. I was two sets up and had break point chances and I should have closed it out in the third set tie-break.”

As the Serb puffed out his cheeks and rolled his eyes at another Stepanek winner, he was beginning to look ever-so-slightly miffed. He had beaten his tormentor 10 times out of 11– why was he being so bothersome now? They had been running around the Centre Court for half an hour and Djokovic had not had so much as a sniff of a chance to gain the upper hand.

The first chance, when it came, if fact went to Stepanek as he manufactured two break points. Djokovic snatched them back again and, as is so often the way, the Czech’s level dipped just a fraction over the next few points – disappointment can be awfully costly – and Djokovic got the break of serve he needed to take the set.

At last it seemed to be business as usual for the former champion. The second set was secured in routine fashion and Djokovic looked to be heading for the third round at a stately trot. But looks can be deceptive and Stepanek had no intention of going quietly. He chased and he harried and he forced the third set into a tie-break. Even then, he had to fight back from 5-2 down, but fight he did and with a roar of satisfaction – and with the crowd cheering his every move – he took the match into a fourth set.

By this stage, the crowd had picked their favourite: the supposed underdog and the bloke who played this extraordinary brand of tennis. He played to them and they loved him for doing so. And the more they backed the Czech, the more Djokovic’s pulse raced: this one could go either way and he needed every ounce of strength and confidence to force the momentum back in his direction.

When Stepanek came back again from 5-2 down in the fourth set tie-break, Djokovic looked like he was about to go off pop. Surely the old boy, his great mate off the court, was not going to do this to him again? Luckily for Serbia’s greatest export, Stepanek could not do it again and Djokovic was through to play Gilles Simon on Friday. But he really was not happy.

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