Radek Stepanek and Lukas Rosol staked the Czech Republic to a 2-0 lead over Japan in their Davis Cup World Group quarterfinal match on Friday.
Stepanek and Rosol both earned hard-fought victories as the Czechs continue their quest for a third straight Davis Cup title.
Stepanek downed Tatsuma Ito 6-7 (5-7), 7-6 (7-5), 6-1, 7-5 in the opening singles match, while Rosol bested the unheralded Taro Daniel 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 4-6, 6-2 in the second.
“I’m happy we are ahead 2-0 after the first day,” said Czech Republic captain Jaroslav Navratil. “Both matches were very close. We were a bit lucky at the end of both.”
Navratil was impressed by the level of the opposition.
“The Japanese players showed good, aggressive tennis,” he said. “They had nothing to lose and didn’t hold back.”
Both sides are without their top players. Tomas Berdych is out for the Czechs following two tough tournaments in the United States, while Kei Nishikori is sidelined due to an injured groin suffered in a quarterfinal victory over Roger Federer in the Sony Open last week in Miami.
Ito, 146th in the world rankings, took the opening set 7-6 (7-5) in 63 minutes after saving three set points in the 10th game.
With most of the action taking place from the baseline, Stepanek had three break points in the second game after taking the first at love on serve.
After Ito leveled, the set was on serve until the eighth game when the Czech broke to go up 5-3. Ito dug in and broke right back for 5-4.
Serving for the set, Stepanek was unable to capitalize on his three opportunities and sent a backhand long for 5-5
The set remained on serve until the tiebreak, when Ito moved out to a 6-3 lead and then finished it with a nice drop shot on his third set point.
Ito broke in the second game of the second set for a 2-0 lead. He relied on a sweeping forehand and periodic trips to the net throughout the contest.
Stepanek responded by taking the next three games to go up 3-2, before Ito broke again to even at 3-3.
Leading 6-5 with Stepanek serving, Ito had a set point but could not convert after a great volley by Stepanek and another tiebreak ensued.
Ito went up 5-3 in the tiebreak, but then dropped four straight points and the set 7-5 (7-5).
The escape in the second set appeared to invigorate Stepanek, as he quickly moved ahead 3-0 in the third. At that point Ito took a medical timeout for nearly 10 minutes for stomach trouble.
Ito came back to win the next game on serve, but offered little resistance the rest of the set and fell 6-1.
Ito appeared rejuvenated in the final set, but could not pull ahead. Stepanek broke to go up 6-5, then closed out the match on serve 7-5.
“Some days you just have to trust yourself and find a way through,” commented Stepanek. “After an injury timeout, he came back strong and that can make it difficult.”
It was a gritty showing by Stepanek, who was a point away from falling 2-0 down at one point. The 47th-ranked used his veteran guile to emerge victorious on this day.
“It was a very tough match today,” said Stepanek. “I thought I was cruising in the first set, but lost in the tiebreak. I felt better after winning the second set.”
“I tried to play my game and do the best I could,” stated Ito. “I tried to stay aggressive and kept reminding myself to be tougher during the match.”
Ito beat Stepanek in their only previous meeting in Dusseldorf, Germany, in 2012.
“I have played him before and I know he has a tricky strategy and can hit many difficult shots,” noted Ito. “If I could have won the second set, the match might have been different.”
In the second contest, Rosol had his hands full with the Japanese-American Daniel, who is ranked 190th.
Rosol appeared on the way to a straight sets win, but Daniel dug in and surged back to level in an intense baseline battle that went just over three hours.
Rosol, ranked 40th, appeared agitated after dropping the fourth set and came out blasting winners in the fifth. He broke Daniel in the second game, then took the next one at love on serve for 3-0.
It was fait accompli after that as Daniel appeared to wear down and could not cope with Rosol’s booming ground strokes.
“It was a tough match, Taro played well,” said Rosol. “He was aggressive in the third and fourth sets and I had trouble finding my rhythm.”
Having been there before helped carry Rosol through.
“I knew I had more experience,” he said. “I had to play harder and take some chances to succeed in the final set.”
Playing his first match at any level for Japan was a thrill for Daniel.
“It was incredible being out there with all that support,” he said. “I’m disappointed to lose, but the reality is that I could not play at this level one year ago, so I have improved.”
Daniel did not think stamina was a factor in his loss.
“I actually thought playing five sets would be tougher,” he said. “I felt pretty good out there. I just need to improve my serve against the top players.”
Japan captain Minoru Ueda regretted the lost opportunity his team had.
“We had a chance to win both matches,” he stated. “It’s a shame we didn’t.”
Ueda took an optimistic view despite the uphill battle Japan faces.
“It’s not over yet. We still have a chance,” he said. “The good thing is that Tatsuma and Taro had great experiences playing against top-level opponents.”
Saturday’s doubles will see Stepanek and Jiri Vesely take on Ito and Yasutaka Uchiyama.
Japan defeated Canada in the first round in February, while the Czechs beat the Netherlands in their first-round tie.
The meeting between Japan and the Czech Republic is the first since 1935 and third all time. The nations split their two previous ties in Prague, with Japan winning the first in 1930.