Radek Stepanek outworked and outthought James Blake to take the title in Los Angeles.
Radek Stepanek is one of those cerebral tennis players. Maybe that’s part of the attraction for his fiancée Martina Hingis, sometimes referred to as the “cerebral assassin”. You never know quite know where Stepanek’s ball will go or what speed it might have. He’ll hit a drop shot then pass you at the net and serve and volley in spots. And for a finesse player, he’s got plenty of serve. Twice in his victory over James Blake today in Los Angeles, he dug out of a 0-40 deficit with service winners and aces.
Blake had survived those annoying grinders Paul Goldstein and Vince Spadea earlier this week but this was different. Stepanek drew Blake to the net with drop shots numerous times and though Blake started to pick up on them in the second set, he never did figure out that Stepanek likes to hit his running forehand passing shot cross court.
Both sides played excellent tennis in the first set. In the tenth game, Blake hit an approach shot followed by a short hop volley then watched as Stepanek hit a gorgeous running backhand down the line and past him. Stepanek hit one of those running forehand passing shots to even the tiebreak at 6-6 and three points later, won the tiebreak and first set.
In between points, there was a different, unspoken competition taking place and it affected the outcome of the match. Blake likes to play fast and he gets annoyed when his opponents play games. That’s almost an invitation to play games and Stepanek him up on it.
He broke a string in the first set tiebreak and took his sweet time going through the rackets in his bag to find a replacement. He went to his chair to get a towel in between points instead of handing it to a ballperson standing behind him.
He complained to the chair umpire about Blake’s posse – the J-Block – making too much noise. A tournament official went over to the posse and publicly told them to cut it out. I’m sure Blake didn’t appreciate that. There was even a mini-stare down after Blake tried to hit a ball through Stepanek’s belly.
Stepanek started to tire towards the end of the second set. He started spraying his shots. At 5-5, Blake hit one of his rocket returns and two passing shots of his own to get a break, then served out the set to even the match.
Blake should have had the advantage in a third set because Stepanek hasn’t been very deep in tournaments since missing six months due to injury. Blake was smart enough to recognize this. He ran Stepanek around and hit some drop shots to tire him out.
It seemed to be working when Stepanek called a medical time out for a hamstring strain early in the set. He was breathing hard and the leg problem could have been cramping. Or he could have been taking a “phantom” medical time out to get a rest, a slightly longer version of his previous delay tactics. Not that I have a problem with that. If it works and it’s legal, then he’s a smart player.
No doubt the thought seeped into Blake’s mind because he hit a double fault in the next game to give Stepanek a break point then lost his serve to go down 1-3. Serving to stay in the match at 2-5, Blake hit an error then a forehand that ticked the net but refused to go over and Stepanek had two match points. Stepanek hit a passing shot by Blake and the match was over. Stepanek had won only the second title in his career, 7-6(7), 5-7, 6-2.
Stepanek had managed to psyche Blake out. He affected Blake’s rhythm with delay tactics, got Blake’s posse in trouble, and recovered his breath with a medical timeout.
I hadn’t paid much attention to Stepanek because as soon as he got to the top ten last year, he dropped off the tour for six months with a dislocated veterbra in his neck. Besides, he only had one title so why should I pay attention? Now I’ll pay attention.
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Read other articles about Los Angeles:
Interview with a Modest James Blake
ATP Fantasy Tennis: Do You Pick Nadal or Not?
The Greatest Road Trip in Sports Hits California
Safin, Nalbandian, and Gonzalez Hit the Wall
James Blake Survives Goldstein and Spadea
James Blake: Life is What Happens While You Make Plans