The final competition of the season is this weekend’s Davis Cup final in Prague, where the Czech Republic, led by Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek, will play host to Rafael Nadal-less Spain on an indoor hard court at the O2 Arena.
• The teams: Spain, the reigning champion, is looking for its fourth Davis Cup title in five years and sixth overall. With Nadal sidelined by a knee injury, captain Alex Corretja’s team is David Ferrer, Nicolas Almagro, Marcel Granollers, and Marc Lopez, with Feliciano Lopez and Roberto Bautista-Agut as reserves. That’s a formidable group: Ferrer recently won back-to-back indoor titles, and Granollers and Lopez have made the doubles final of the ATP World Tour Finals indoors in London. As for Almagro, he’s had plenty of time to rest and train this week in London, where he was on hand as an alternate for the year-end championships.
Meanwhile, Berdych and Stepanek have formed a formidable one-two punch for the Czech Republic men, who are seeking to match the Fed Cup title by the women at the O2 Arena in Prague just two weeks ago. The two are responsible for winning every live rubber in the team’s last four ties and have gone 11-1 in doubles, though their only loss did come to Spain in the 2009 final. In fact, the Czechs haven’t lost a tie with both Berdych and Stepanek in the lineup since the 2010 semifinal against Serbia. The two will try to lead their team to its first title as the Czech Republic (it won in 1980 as Czechoslovakia).
• The venue: As the host nation, the Czechs will do what everyone tries to do against Spain: Put it on fast indoor hard courts. That might have worked in past years, but it won’t be a neutralizer for the Czechs now. The Argentines famously chose indoor hard courts in the 2008 final in Mar del Plata, only to see their team of Juan Martin del Potro and David Nalbandian crumble against another Nadal-less team led by Ferrer, Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez. Last year, Ferrer & Co. had no problems knocking off the Americans on the quick indoor courts in Austin, Texas, either.
• The matchups: For the Czechs to win this highly competitive matchup, Berdych might need to beat both Almagro and Ferrer and join Stepanek in taking the doubles on Saturday. Fail to take the doubles — a big ask given how well Granollers and Marc Lopez are playing right now — and this title could be determined by the final match between Stepanek and Almagro. I’m not sure the Czechs want it to get to that. Or maybe they do. With Almagro’s history of getting rattled, you know the savvy Stepanek, 33, will get the crowd going to play with Almagro’s head.
Almagro will get a prime opportunity to set the table for the Spaniards if he can beat Berdych on Day 1. The two played a memorable fourth-round match at this year’s Australian Open, where controversy overshadowed Berdych’s 4-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (3), 7-6 (2) victory. Berdych refused to shake Almagro’s hand after the Spaniard beaned him at the net during a point, and the crowd booed Berdych off the court.
The premier match of the weekend — assuming it’s not a 3-0 whitewash for either team — will be No. 5 Ferrer vs. No. 6 Berdych. Ferrer leads their head-to-head 5-3, but Berdych won their last meeting, a three-setter at last year’s World Tour Finals. Based on recent form, I like Ferrer. He’s embraced his No. 1 role on the Spanish team when Nadal has been absent, and he’s playing the best tennis of his life.
• Prediction: Spain 3-2.