Earlier this week, Radek Stepanek, two-time Davis Cup and Grand Slam doubles winner, announced his retirement from professional tennis following a chronic back injury. The mercurial Czech, known for his sublime volleying and unrelenting spirit on the court, is now set to join Novak Djokovic’s coaching team in the coming days. In the wake of this news, LastWordOnTennis.com asks: What made Stepanek such a wonderful player to watch and admire over the years, and what can Novak Djokovic expect from the latest addition to his coaching set-up?
Experience In Both Singles And Doubles
Stepanek began his career in 1995, at the tender age of 16 years old. At a time when Czech men’s tennis was still recovering from the loss of Ivan Lendl to the United States, and relying on the likes of Jiri Novak to represent it on the big stage, there was a lot of anticipation for Stepanek to become the Czech Republic’s next tennis star. The teen from Karviná, a city on the Czech-Polish border, certainly resembled Lendl in terms of his drive and work ethic, but it took him a while to settle onto the professional stage. Despite memorable victories, which included a win over Roger Federer in Gstaad in 2002, Stepanek would have to wait until 2006 before he broke into the world’s Top 10, reaching a career-high ranking of #8 after he reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon that same year. Stepanek was a fan’s favourite, always bringing a bit of tongue-in-cheek humour to the court, no matter what the occasion. Sadly for Czech tennis fans, he never quite matched Lendl in terms of his titles won, but he was certainly a more colourful character on-court than the adopted American.
Despite the fact that Stepanek never won a Grand Slam singles title, he more than made up for it in doubles, where he won the Australian Open in 2012 alongside Leander Paes, as well as the 2013 US Open. It seemed as though his game was more suited to doubles, with his delicate shots at the net and high-energy game having a positive effect on both the crowd and his doubles partners alike. His record of 18 doubles titles throughout his career eclipsed his five singles titles, and he was a wonderful ambassador for the doubles game wherever he played.
Playing For His Country Meant Everything
Alongside Tomas Berdych, Radek Stepanek forms part of the Czech Republic’s most successful-ever Davis Cup pairing. The pair single-handedly won back-to-back Davis Cup titles in 2012 and 2013, beating Spain in Prague and Serbia in Belgrade, respectively. Stepanek also featured in one of the longest-ever Davis Cup singles rubbers, beating Croatian Ivo Karlovic in five sets in a match that lasted 5 hours and 59 minutes. Stepanek was, and still is, idolised in the Czech Republic mostly due to his Davis Cup record.
It is easy to forget that Stepanek did not play Davis Cup between 2004 and 2007, due to differences he had with the Czech Tennis Federation. The move drew him a lot of criticism from Czech fans, prompting vulgar banners bearing his name to be displayed during the Czech Republic’s World Group first round loss to the United States, in 2007. Stepanek silenced the critics, however, returning for the Czech Republic’s key relegation match against Switzerland later that same year, and the rest is history.
What A Character
Stepanek has been no stranger to controversy throughout his career. After his singles’ rubber win against Janko Tipsarevic in Belgrade en-route to the 2012 Davis Cup title, the Serbian accused the Czech of showing him the middle finger whilst they were shaking hands. Stepanek vehemently denied those claims, stating that he was merely tired after the match and his handshake reflected this.
Stepanek also caught the headlines for off-court reasons. His high-profile engagement to Martina Hingis in 2006, marriage to fellow Czech former pro Nicole Vaidisova, and subsequent relationship with two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova did not hugely benefit Stepanek’s game, nor his public reputation. Nonetheless, as was the case with his on-court issues, the Czech managed to bounce back, and his legacy, both on- and off-court, continues to be positive.
What Can Djokovic Expect From Stepanek?
Whenever Stepanek’s name appeared on any tournament list, entertainment and excitement were guaranteed. The Czech will try and maintain a level of enjoyment in the game, which perhaps has been missing from Djokovic this season due to his injury problems. In a recent interview, Djokovic spoke of his realisation that he should be playing tennis because he enjoys it, rather than to win titles, as a key factor in contributing to his success. Stepanek will undoubtedly help to strengthen his sense of enjoyment in the game, and will hopefully add a bit more flair to it as well.
In many ways, the two players are incredibly similar. Like Stepanek, it took Djokovic a while to build on his reputation as a prodigious youngster to become a record-breaking champion, and Davis Cup has played a huge part in both players’ successes. Djokovic won the title in 2010, the year before his incredible three-time-Grand-Slam-winning year. Moreover, they are good friends, which will help when it comes to establishing a solid, trusting relationship within the Djokovic coaching team. This will give the 12-time Grand-Slam champion plenty of optimism going into 2018.
Whichever way the Czech chooses to go, now that he has hung up his racquet, he can certainly look back on his playing years with a great amount of pride. He had his faults, but his imperfections and his contagious enthusiasm for the game endeared him to millions of tennis fans around the world. He leaves the game a record-breaker, and one of the few tennis players ever to have broken into the World’s Top 10 on both the singles and doubles circuits. Not bad from someone who was initially booed by his own fans.
Embed from Getty Images