Stepanek likely to prove a substantial thorn in Spain's side
TIPPING POINT:The 100th Davis Cup final begins on Friday in Prague where the Czech Republic has chosen to play Spain on a hard-court and not cow-dung. The latter might have been an advantage to the clay-court loving Spanish, and the big advantage of being the home team is you get to choose the surface.
John McEnroe’s lengthy CV of pithy one-liners includes a beauty from his days as America’s Davis Cup captain and the prospect of facing Zimbabwe in Harare. Pressed on the question of the likely surface, Mac reasonably pointed out the home team would pick whatever gave them the greatest chance of beating the US, and then characteristically lowered the tone by declaring that would probably be cow-dung.
Cue diplomatic incident with Mugabe Co taking a break from starving their people to complain about Super Brat. But he wasn’t being entirely facetious.
In India especially there are still courts officially described as “clay” but which are topped by cow-shit. There are plenty who say it is the best surface of all, encouraging serve-and-volley while also being slow enough to give baseliners a shout.
And it doesn’t smell either, something that can hardly be said for some of the stuff that has gone down in the Davis Cup over the years when it comes to home-town decisions that have gone a long way beyond a choice of surface.
It is 40 years now since Romania played the US in a Davis Cup decider they were determined to win. After a couple of previous final defeats to the Americans, the 1972 final was played in Bucharest on a clay surface so slow Tortoises could have got speeding tickets. This was in order to play to the strengths of the Romanian hero Ilie Nastase.
The ‘Bucharest Buffoon’ was a Grand Slam-winning World No.1 but Nastase’s real strength was the sort of gurning attention-seeking that made it no surprise to anyone when hometown pressure got to him and he ‘tanked’ against Stan Smith. This encouraged his compatriots to try and help out.
The final effectively came down to a showdown between Smith and the local hardman Ion Tiriac, a former hockey star, whose party pieces included eating glass and working a mob into a frenzy.
Smith got foot-faulted so repeatedly he took to almost serving from the car-park. Line calls favoured Tiriac so outrageously the American played every ball, even if it landed in the umpire’s lap, and aimed his own shots for the middle of the court so even shamelessly cheating linesmen couldn’t call them out. Arthur Ashe later recalled the cheating by local officials reached an “abysmal low”.
At one stage a supposedly non-partisan linesman massaged a cramp in Tiriac’s leg and exhorted him to hammer the Yankee capitalist bastard on the other side of the net. And yet somehow Smith emerged on top, winning 6-0 in the fifth.
Such resolution is hardly remembered now. Afterwards the Davis Cup lost a lot of its lustre. Grand Slams became the thing. Jimmy Connors disdained the team event, rather like Tiger Woods does the Ryder Cup.
But McEnroe later embraced it, and the competition has somehow survived the modern corporate era, principally because it’s just that bit different to the week-to-week slog of the tour and allows fans to wrap national flags around themselves and yell impeccably middle-class abuse at the opposition.
There doesn’t appear to be any obvious enmity between Spain and the Czechs. We’re hardly talking the potential fire-threat that say, Greece v Bulgaria or India v Pakistan might represent.
But with Radek Stepanek playing for the home team, the potential for aggro will still throb through the weekend.
Widely referred to as “The Worm” and renowned as the most unpopular player in the male locker-room, Stepanek is no oil-painting looks-wise either, possessed as he is of a mouth that bears an uncanny resemblance to a Blobfish, something which in turn hasn’t stopped him rubbing that puss against a seemingly endless line of the hottest females in tennis.
Maybe that is a contributory factor to his unpopularity among the blokes. But it could also be a habit of goading opposition such as Serbia’s Janko Tipsaevic who accused Stepanek of giving him the finger while shaking hands after a match in April.
The Serb had to be held back from rubbing his rival’s clock that day, and it’s not like the Spanish are renowned for keeping their emotions under control.
Nevertheless the visitors have been the dominant Davis Cup power over the last decade, principally due to Rafa Nadal and a deep reservoir of supporting talent. But Nadal is injured and so feisty little David Ferrer leads the Spaniards as they try to defy a record of only one of the last six finals going to the away team.
Either way, passions will be high, something to embrace considering everyone is playing for nothing but pride.
And anyone who thinks it doesn’t matter might care to look back to 1991 and a first Davis Cup win for France in 59 years. There was a spontaneous rendition of Le Marseillaise that testified to a joy the normally too-cool-for-school French prefer not to exhibit. The footage can still rise goose-bumps.
For now though, it’s enough to try and guess whose ire Stepanek will rise.