Argentina hosts the Czech Republic in the Davis Cup semifinals, but while eyes will be focused on the countries' respective big-hitters, Juan Martin Del Potro and Tomas Berdych, 39th-ranked Radek Stepanek should determine the victor, one way or the other.
While Spain may be a clear favorite to win its semifinal matchup with the United States at home, the outcome of the other semifinal, on the clay in Buenos Aires, is far less certain. Both Argentina and the Czech Republic are led by highly-ranked, pure power hitters, but wildcards like Radek Stepanek and two low-ranked doubles squads could decide the outcome of this one. Argentina holds the advantage on its home court (and surface), but this could be very, very close.
Juan Martin Del Potro (Singles Ranking: No. 6)
Juan Monaco (Singles Ranking: No. 12)
Eduardo Schwank (Doubles Ranking: No. 60)
Carlos Berlocq (Doubles Ranking: No. 83)
Tomas Berdych (Singles Ranking: No. 7)
Radek Stepanek (Singles Ranking: No. 39 | Doubles Ranking: No. 9)
Lukas Rosol (Singles Ranking: No. 79)
Ivo Minar (Singles Ranking: No. 152)
Friday: Del Potro vs. Stepanek, Monaco vs. Berdych
Saturday: Berlocq/Schwank vs. Minar/Rosol
Sunday: Del Potro vs. Berdych, Monaco vs. Stepanek
Del Potro vs. Stepanek. It is easy to look at this matchup and assume Del Potro will win easily; he is, after all, ranked more than 30 spots ahead of his Czech counterpart. But the salty Stepanek actually holds the all-time series advantage in both of his matches. Against Del Potro, Stepanek is 3-1, with all four matches taking place on hard courts. Now, clay tends to treat Del Potro better than Stepanek -- in 2012, Del Potro won 54 percent of his clay court points and 52 percent of his hardcourt points, while Stepanek won 51 percent on hardcourt and 49 percent on clay -- but this match could be a lot tighter than you think. Advantage: Argentina, but barely.
Monaco vs. Berdych. Monaco loves the clay -- he is a patented clay-court hustler -- but Berdych has completely dominated the all-time series (matches: 5-0 Berdych; sets: 12-3 Berdych), and for most of the same reasons that most of the Top 10 has done well versus Monaco: they have too much offense, and he doesn't have enough. Advantage: Czech Republic.
Berlocq/Schwank vs. Minar/Rosol. Your guess is as good as mine in this one. If you have only heard of one player in this match, it is almost certainly Rosol, who looked absolutely incredible in taking out Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon, then went back to playing like a barely-Top-100 player. He is a Top 200 doubles player, and his partner, Minar, had some doubles success a few years ago. But based simply on the fact that both of the Argentinians are in the doubles Top 100, I give them the edge. Advantage: Argentina.
Del Potro vs. Berdych. This match features two of the world's biggest, purest, most powerful strikers of the tennis ball. If both are in rhythm (and that is not always the case), they could produce some gorgeous baseline tennis. Del Potro leads the overall series, 4-2 (2-1 on clay), but he has taken only four of seven sets on clay. He did beat Berdych in four sets at the French Open, but Berdych took a straight-set win (both in tie-breakers) in Madrid. Home court gives Del Potro the advantage, but this could be fantastic and ultra-tight. Advantage: Argentina.
Monaco vs. Stepanek. How important is the surface on which a match is taking place? Stepanek has taken four of six lifetime matches versus Monaco, but Monaco won the only matchup on clay (6-4, 6-2 at Rome earlier in 2012). Monaco is much better on clay than on any other surface (he won 53 percent of his points on clay in 2012 and only 50 percent on hard courts), and maybe he has the edge here, but ... are you catching on to how much of a wildcard Stepanek is? Advantage: Argentina.
Radek Stepanek. Somehow, despite barely holding a Top 40 ranking, Stepanek has won six of nine lifetime matches versus his two Argentine opponents. He is a feisty, resourceful player, capable of going on offense or hitting 19 straight slices. In less-than-ideal conditions, I could see him mucking up the proceedings and taking out both Del Potro and Monaco. But he isn't favored to do either. As Stepanek goes, so goes the Czech Republic.
Del Potro vs. Berdych. If only for the aesthetics. Players like Monaco and David Ferrer have proven that you don't have to be enormous, either in stature or ball-striking ability, to get pretty high in the rankings; but both Del Potro and Berdych reached their respective heights because of their ability to hit the ball really, really hard. They will do it a lot, and as the fourth match overall, their match could be the deciding match of the tie.
I have Argentina holding the edge in four of five matches, but I say Stepanek surprises at least one opponent. We'll say Argentina wins, 3-2, but this this tie has an incredible number of possibilities.