Berdych holds his nerve as Czechs draw level against Spain in Davis Cup final
23:25 GMT, 16 November 2012
Prior to the Davis Cup final Tomas Berdych described Nicolas Almagro as the 'weak link' of Spain, and those words so nearly came back to dramatically bite him as the opening Friday nearly spilled into Saturday.
With the clock approaching midnight the Czech No 1 finally surpressed the game challenge of Almagro to level the match at 1-1 with three to play, but having spurned so many chances to finish it off he could nearly have ended up embarrassed.
Delight: Tomas Berdych celebrates after beating Nicolas Almagro
Almagro, who has a modest indoor record and only just gained selection over Feliciano Lopez, came close to changing the whole course of the final before going down 6-3 3-6 6-3 6-7 6-3 in three hours and 58 minutes.
Eventually he had the 02 Arena, packed with nearly 14,000 supporters, in raptures but through the course of the evening they were severely worried by his inability to put the Spaniard away.
They began the day by parading the old Czechoslovakian Davis Cup team that won the competition in 1980, including Ivan Lendl on a rare trip back to his homeland.
But what is now known as the Czech Republic, since splitting with Slovakia, was no nearer emulating the triumph of 32 years ago, and Almagro may already have done his team a major service by keeping Berdych out on the court so long and until so late.
One of the joys of the Davis Cup is that doubles, the most popular recreational form of the game, emerges from the shadow of professional singles to play such an important part in matches, and that will be absolutely the case today.
Czech mates: Berdych and his team celebrate
This afternoon's encounter between what is expected to be the Czech team of Berdych and Radek Stepanek versus specialist team Marc Granollers and Marc Lopez, who took the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals title on Monday, looks too close to call and could determine the whole outcome of the match.
The question is how much the opening singles will have taken out of Berdych, who was left with precious little time to turn round thanks to the 4pm start which is always prone to cause a late finish.
There was no great surprise in the outcome of the opening rubber, a 6-3 6-4 6-4 win for David Ferrer, even though a less determined character than the world number five might have succumbed to the circumstances ranged against him.
The Czechs have laid down what would be termed a fast indoor hard court by today's sluggish standards, although not many years ago it would have been considered no more than vaguely brisk in terms of speed.
The move is designed to assist the more aggressive tendencies of the home players and hurt the more baseline-reliant Spaniards, but Ferrer, who gave Andy Murray such a tough match at Wimbledon, has matured into such an all-round player that it hardly bothered him.
Czech Republic's Tomas Berdych
Nor did the fact that this was his 90th singles match of the season, and his fourth event in four weeks, having won in Valencia and Paris and been unlucky to miss out on the semi-finals in London. He simply never seems to get tired, physically or mentally.
Stepanek, now 34 and ranked 32 places lower at 37 in the world, simply had to get a good start and ignite the crowd in the O2 Arena, which looks like it could have been tailor-made to host tennis.
He started well enough before getting into difficulty in what turned out to be among the longest individual games of recent seasons, the sixth, which lasted 24 minutes and contained eleven deuces.
It began with him serving two double faults – his serve was his weakest suit throughout – but he eventually squeezed himself out of it to stay level, in what might have proved a considerable psychological blow to the Spaniard
Instead Ferrer just got on with his business, as he does, and quickly broke before holding on to the set. When he broke in the first game of the second set the die appeared to have been cast with five consecutive games. His biggest problem was converting break points, and at one point he had created 19 and taken only two of them.
Sore point: Spain's Nicolas Almagro, center, argues the umpire
Stepanek, with is elegant caress of the ball, did manage to break back but could never hold on to any momentum and was unable to provide his team with an upset, going down in two hours and 58 minutes. “I returned serve very well, that was crucial,” said Ferrer, now 22-4 in the Davis Cup and still enjoying the season of his life.
Berdych looked like he was going to finish Almagro off when he went ahead to 3-1 in the fourth, but was hauled back to a tiebreak which he lost 7-5, leading to a decider in what was surely a must-win rubber for the home side.
The Czech is not known for having the strongest nerve, and he went ahead again for 4-2 in the fifth, only to be broken back immediately. At 4-4 he then created three break points, and on the last of them slapped away a cross court backhand. Almagro appealed the call to Hawk-Eye, which showed that it had just clipped the line.
Finally he served it out with sufficient ease to ensure that this was not a tale of the unexpected – it was always likely that this 100th edition of the Davis Cup was going to be decided over the course of the weekend.