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Stepanek Thwarts Monfils for Title in Washington

For the second day in a row, rain disrupted the proceedings at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic. But this afternoon, even that was insufficient for top seed and wildcard Gael Monfils to prevail. Unseeded Radek Stepanek bested Monfils 6-4,6-4 to win this ATP 500 tournament, the biggest prize of his career.

With a record of 5-2 against Stepanek, Monfils seemed in good stead to become the first Frenchman to triumph in the nation’s capital since Arnaud Clement beat Andy Murray in 2006.

For his part, Stepanek was on a quest to end his nation’s 29 year drought at this venue. Petr Korda, Stepanek’s coach, was the last victorious Czech in 1992.

The preamble to a disastrous afternoon for Monfils came in his initial service game. Monfils had two successive double faults despite holding.

Subsequent to guarding serve, Stepanek struck a backhand crosscourt winner for break point. When Monfils dumped a forehand into the net, Stepanek took a 2-1 lead.

In trying to consolidate, Stepanek went down 0-30. However, Monfils obliged with a sleuth of errors to allow the Czech to consolidate for a 3-1 advantage.

Later with Stepanek serving, the skies opened up and a thunderous downpour followed. Once Stepanek returned and completed the game for 4-2, showers came anew.

When play resumed, Monfils appeared more willing to fight and comfortably maintained serve. Yet despite Stepanek’s horrendous 30 percent first serve, Monfils could not capitalize on his second serve.

With Monfils stuck ten feet beyond the baseline and his returns falling short, an aggressive Stepanek proficient at volleying thrived at the net. Consequently, Stepanek easily bedded the first set.

For Monfils, the following set was a duplicate of the previous one. With a backhand volley winner, Stepanek had break point in the initial game. With Monfils’ forehand crosscourt pass finding the net, Stepanek converted.

Next, with an emphatic love game punctuated by his maiden ace, Stepanek raced to a 2-0 lead.

At times, Monfils uncorked his frustration on his racket. The crowd did it’s utmost to lift the Frenchman, however, without success. Despite losing solely two points his subsequent four service games, Monfils could not fabricate a single break point.

Stepanek’s first serve percentage picked up slightly this set at 46, winning 12 out of 12 points. With Monfils’ return not clearing the net, Stepanek had triple championship points.

When Monfils flubbed a backhand, Stepanek claimed his first title since San Jose in 2009. He also became the second oldest titlist. Jimmy Connors hoisted the trophy in 1988 at age 35.

With yesterday’s semifinals completed in the wee hours of the morning, Monfils did not go to sleep until four. Thus, the Frenchman felt the lack of rest made him “a fraction of a step slower. . . [so I] caught the returns late”.

Monfils admitted that Stepanek was “better than me today. . . He returned pretty deep and fast. . .then reached the net very fast. So it was hard to play my game”.

Because of the narrow preparation window, asked Monfils if he had any indication that he would not be at his peak while in practice. Monfils said “No. I had a good warm-up. . .I think I played good, but sometimes, the other guy plays better”.

With this defeat, Monfils’ record in finals is now 3-11. Considering he’s such a gifted and talented individual, the questions is why.

Monfils responded “my first [three] finals [were] impossible. . .I lost to [Roger] Federer, he was [ranked] number one, [Ivan] Ljubicic was number three and [Andy] Roddick number two. So, you can forget [those]. . . To be honest, I’m unlucky. Last year in the finals, I twisted my ankle. Today, I finished at 1:15 a.m.”.

In his prior rounds, Monfils was willing to venture to the net quite a bit. A couple days ago Monfils was asked by whether his coach was working on making him more offensive.

Monfils answered “ I try , but sometimes, I need more confidence. . .I’m a good worker when I try to approach the net, but sometimes I don’t feel it. So I need to keep working on that”. Today there were only four visits to the forecourt.

To celebrate his victory, Stepanek did ‘the worm’ on the court. He explained “I do it when I win tournaments”. At age 32, this victory is confirmation for Stepanek after “coming back from a lot of injuries with [self-belief] and hard work”, he can still compete with the ‘young guns’.

Stepanek’s plan was to be offensive from the initial stroke “I wanted to be in control of the match. . .be the boss on court. . .I wanted to have the match in my hands. . .I was right to come to the net because that’s my game”.
Stepanek is the senior of the ATP top 100 rankings. Prior to today, Juan Carlos Ferrero at 31 was the only person around that age to bank a title. Stepanek was asked about players winning titles at that age “we are like fine wine, the older we get, the better we are. . .Age doesn’t matter, it depends on how your [body] feels”.

On Monday, Stepanek’s ranking will improve from 54 to around 30. His goal is to keep progressing as the U.S. Open nears.

At number 7, Monfils is at the highest ranking of his career. His best showing at a major was the 2008 French Open semifinals. A few days ago, inquired from the Frenchman what it will take to get to a final.

Monfils answered “ I have to have confidence in myself, have a stronger belief. . . I’m a believer, but to reach the real top, I have to believe more. [For instance], now I’m practicing two hours, I need to increase by 30 minutes more. Even though it’s hard. . . I know I have the potential but sometimes, I forget. I say to myself this guy is playing good. I have to remind myself I’m playing good also. I show too much respect to my opponent. Maybe I need to be more selfish as well.

There’s no truer testament to that statement than his performance today.

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