What loomed as a tricky third-round encounter for dual defending champion Novak Djokovic ended up resembling an entertaining exhibition rather than an intense third-round Grand Slam match.
On Friday, Djokovic faced 31st seed Radek Stepanek, the wily Czech with the ability to entertain the crowd and unsettle his opponent at the same time. Luckily for Djokovic he passed the test, winning in straight sets 6-4 6-3 7-5.
“I wasn't expecting an easy match coming into the third round and playing a seeded player,” said Djokovic.
“Top 30 in the world, [he is] somebody that has a lot of experience playing on the tour.
“He loves the big stage. You saw how much fun he had. I also had a lot of fun playing. It was a very entertaining match. As I said on the court, he's very skillful, comes to the net, never gives you the same ball twice. That's something that makes him a different player from most of the guys.”
On an overcast Melbourne day, pretty much everything worked for the top seed. The crafty Stepanek tried to use his court smarts to get on top of Djokovic, but the defending champ was up to the challenge, regularly anticipating his opponent’s unpredictable moves.
For 34-year-old Stepanek the match was, perhaps, a reality check. It’s not that he played poorly – he didn’t. He threw everything he had at Djokovic but still fell in three sets. Despite this, he may have unearthed a clue that another player may use to solve the problem of how to beat Djokovic.
“For a regular player, to beat him from the back of the court is very difficult. I think they will lose 98 per cent of the matches,” said Stepanek.
“I think to beat him is the way to play to serve really well, hold your service games and distract his game from the back because his game from the back is, as I said, the best in the world.
“Play something different, because if you play ordinary tennis like everybody does, hitting from the back of the court, he’s going to get you sooner or later.”
Stepanek approached the net 67 times during the two hour, 22 minute match. It was a tactic that may not have won him the match, but he did stick with Djokovic for three sets. Don’t be surprised if Djokovic’s next opponent, either Stanislas Wawrinka or Sam Querrey, venture forward of the baseline in their fourth-round encounter.
Despite losing on Friday, Stepanek was still able to celebrate the wins he did have. After winning a long rally filled with lobs, cheeky drop shots and an un-teachable over-the-shoulder smash, the Czech entertainer brought the crowd to life with some skipping and fist pumping that only he could get away with.
What’s refreshing about Stepanek – apart from his adventurous on-court attire – is that his opponents don’t seem to mind this livewire’s antics. Using his racquet as a gun, head-butting balls and punching himself in the face are all part of his zany repertoire.
A warm embrace between the two jokers at the end of the match proof that Djokovic enjoyed the match as much as the near-capacity crowd at Rod Laver Arena.
But while Stepanek was busy celebrating small victories, it was Djokovic who mostly had his eyes firmly on the big prize – some seemingly momentary lapses in intensity in the third set perhaps the only flaw in the world No.1’s game.
“Well, it's the third round of a Grand Slam. I think that says enough. I think both of us, we want to win the match. Even though we enjoy, there is no exhibition here. You want to win on the court,” said Djokovic.
“Maybe I could have won the third set earlier. But credit to him, he always played well when he needed to. So it wasn't an easy match.”
Three matches into his campaign, Djokovic is looking good. Relaxed and improving with each match, the Serb is as good a chance as any to win his fourth Australian Open title and third in the row, a sentiment his vanquished opponent agreed with.
“I did everything I could. I was trying to rally with him from the back, I was trying to come to the net as often as I could and I was trying to make the rallies as short as possible,” explained Stepanek.
“But Novak just proved that he is the best player in the world, and the way he moves and he was able to hit passing shots and his returning serve is really outstanding.”