Czech Radek Stepanek ran away with the title at this year’s Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington, D.C. versus entertainer extraordinaire Gaël Monfils, 6-4, 6-4. Both players were on their best behavior as they showcased brilliant tennis and provided lots of goofy photos (below)!
Stepanek strolled into the media interview room and began downing not a refreshing bottle of Gatorade or water, but instead, his drink of choice was a Pepsi. Content and relaxed about his week, he stated that it was two years since he’d played this well, the last time being his title run in San Jose in 2009. At age 32, he is the oldest player in the top 100 but states that “it’s not age, it’s how you feel” that determines how long you can play this sport. With the age of top players increasing steadily into their late-20s, he cites that players like him “are like a wine, the older we are getting, the better we are.” He was feeling so good in fact, that he did his trademark dance move on court after his win, The Worm. “The emotions are there … especially after a year of struggling … and a lot of injuries. I still believed in myself, in hard work … and I do The Worm only when I win tournaments, so that’s why I did it today again.”
He commended his opponent Monfils who fought for every point on the court. With an acrobatic and “Cirque de Soleil” style of tennis, Monfils is a true entertainer on court attracting the crowds. He is any photographer’s dream subject as evidenced by the shot below. But what the photo doesn’t show it how quick and agile he is in retrieving and running down every single ball.
Today, however, Monfils was quick to point out that he was a bit unlucky with the scheduling this week, having to finish his three-set semifinal match against John Isner at 1:15am the night before. “I think I was a fraction slower today” than usual. He claimed to be “seeing the ball a fraction late” on Stepanek’s serves as well.
Even while ranked #7 in the world, Monfils is only 3-for-14 in ATP tour level finals as of today. With his aggressive style of play, it makes one wonder why the discrepancy exists. Monfils comments: “I had two opportunities [in past finals] that I didn’t make it … I’m unlucky [to win a title], last year I twisted my ankles in the finals. Today I finished at 1:15am, and I never had a chance to get a good rest.”
Even though he served better than Stepanek, Monfils was broken in the Legg Mason finals twice, both at early parts of each set. “Superman” Monfils was showcased during several points, flying through the air, but rarely won those entertaining points, again showing that it was the steady game of Stepanek’s that really dictated play. There was a rhythm to the match with a slight favor toward Stepanek, but Monfils was threatening him with up-to two aces per game at times. Even as a spectator, it really is a workout tracking Monfils’ every move on court.
At 4-3, 15-all in the second set, Stepanek double-faulted giving Monfils his first glimpse of breaking back. Monfils jumped ahead of himself and powered a backhand just wide, screaming in frustration nearly pounding his racquet to the ground. Even on Stepanek’s next serve, which happened to be a second serve, he still somehow controlled the point and ran Monfils around so much that he slipped and skidded his elbow on the ground, tumbling. Monfils laid silent for several extended seconds (probably catching his breath) before he emerged. But he was clearly shaken up and couldn’t convert the early break. Stepanek won the final game easily, approaching the net four-out-of-five times, and took it 6-4 in the second.
With the awards’ ceremony following, both players showed great sportsmanship and laughed with each other, showing that you can still be friendly even in defeat. In fact, Monfils was caught giggling even bigger than Stepanek at one point – not sure what made him happy, but we’ll take it. For a sport that requires the “loser” to stand up and analyze his game right after a loss, it can be both difficult and therapeutic. You don’t see the Miami Heat being asked why they lost in the NBA Finals 15 minutes after the buzzer, but tennis is different. The stress put on a player doesn’t cease after the last ball is played , it continues for several hours as they are grilled by the media, commentators, and possibly their team on “what went wrong.” But Monfils’ effort today was valiant and humbling: no matter how much work you put in, there’s always more you can do. And he stated that earlier in the week when he said “When I do two hours of practice, I need to add 30 minutes more. I need to feel something inside to go further. I think I show too much respect to my opponent. Maybe I can be more selfish.”
The best (and goofiest) shots from the finals are below. You can follow me on twitter as well for more tennis coverage! @TennisRomi