INTERVIEW: Stepanek on why he keeps playing & Kyrgios friendship

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The Czech veteran is still going strong.

He has got used to it by now. Every time Radek Stepanek goes deep in a tournament or wins a match at a grand slam, a headline pops up somewhere declaring him the “oldest player since Jimmy Connors” to have achieved that feat.

At 38, the Czech veteran’s age has been raising more eyebrows than his unique style of play that took him to as high as No8 in the world over a decade ago.

Stepanek played his first professional match in 1995 and his first full year was in 1998.

This month, he started his 20th season on tour, which he kicked off by reaching the Qatar Open singles quarter-finals as a qualifier and taking the runner-up trophy in doubles alongside his new partner Vasek Pospisil last week.

His run to the last-eight in Doha made him the oldest quarter-finalist at an ATP tournament since, of course, Jimmy Connors in 1995.

Stepanek, ranked No102 at the moment, is the top seed in the Australian Open qualifying event, which began in Melbourne on Wednesday.

Should he secure a spot in the main draw, he’d be the oldest player in the field, and closing in on another Connors age record.

“It seems like I’ll be fighting Jimmy Connors on a couple of ends to change the history a bit,” a smiling Stepanek told Sport360 on the sidelines of the Qatar Open.

But how does he find it in himself to fight through qualifying rounds at tournaments and even slum it on the Challenger tour after all this time, and having tasted life on the higher end of the spectrum?

“I know where I came from. I came from playing a lot of qualifying rounds at tournaments when I got to the top-100 for the first time so I always did it the hard way,” explains Stepanek.

“Even when I got to the top-10 in the world I got injured for six months, I didn’t play since Wimbledon until the end of the year, when I was No5 in the race and playing maybe my best tennis but that’s life.

“I’m taking life as it comes and I always want to fight the situation the best I can and I think I’ve always been humble enough to realise where I’m standing and it never took me down, even when I dropped to 400 or 500 in the rankings. I knew that the only way I can get up there again is hard work and patience and that’s what’s paying off. I’ve done it all, I’ve been through ups and downs in my career so I know both ends and I think that makes it easier for me mentally.”

While being this fit and competitive at his age is highly impressive, there are many more intriguing things about the popular Czech.

His cunning style on court sees him swiftly alternate between serve-and-volley and baseline play on demand. His game is not based on power but he can keep up with the big-hitters and trouble the top guns with his deft touches. Last year, he was two points away from defeating Andy Murray at Roland Garros before he fell to the Scot in five sets.

His fashion sense involves dramatic shirts that can be emblazoned with anything from massive golden-tongued lions to oversized images of a New York skyline.

His on-court celebrations can range from skipping around in funny, robotic-like leaps, to doing the ‘worm’ in an ode to the 1980s funk period.

His off-court romances included relationships with WTA players, Martina Hingis, Petra Kvitova and Nicole Vaidisova, whom he used to be married to.

And he struck up an unlikely friendship with 21-year-old Australian Nick Kyrgios, who said he would like to be coached by Stepanek one day.

Leave it to Stepanek to get someone like Kyrgios – who once said the reason he has no coach is because he would struggle to find a mentor who would accept his erratic behaviour and mood swings – to actually want to listen to him.

“It came very naturally and unexpectedly,” Stepanek said of his friendship with Kyrgios.

“I think Nick has great potential to be the best player in the world. He’s proving that in a couple of matches throughout the season, even his titles in 2016. He has his downs as well and I believe that if he cuts off his downs and mentally will get on the right track, without his loops, then he can be really the one who can attack the top guys.

Stepanek and Kyrgios are friends on and off the court.

“When we got on the court in Miami, I had a couple of quotes (words) to him, because we practiced and he was smashing racquets, shooting balls out of the court. I said ‘you know what man? You see that plane up there? The next one is yours. Pack yourself and rather take a plane and don’t bother everyone with this. Everybody came here to support you, to do everything for you and you’re wasting it. So if you want to play basketball, the plane is there, go home and play basketball’.

“Since then we started to talk a little bit to each other. Obviously I feel his interest, he told the press that he would like me to be his coach which is very nice to hear from such a player.

“It’s not the time for it, I’m still on the other side of the court and the one who wants to beat him, the same way as he wants to beat me. But we have a great relationship. He’s a great, funny guy and I have full belief that he can get there.”

It appears that Stepanek’s love for the sport knows no bounds. As we chat in the lounge inside the media centre in Doha, the five-time ATP titlist could not keep his eyes off of the TV screen behind me that was showing an Andy Murray match. He would get distracted mid-sentence to follow a specific point and he laughed when I asked if he ever switched off from tennis.

“I do switch off but now I know that it’s a very important part of the match and it’s just automatic,” he replied.

In his one week in Doha, Stepanek played nine matches in both singles and doubles and won seven of them. Does he treat both disciplines of the game with equal regard?

“I always say that winning never gets old. When I go in a match, I’m going with the same attitude in singles and in doubles. For me, neither competition is a bonus. It’s what I love to do and I’m trying to be successful on both ends. I’m really happy, as all of you are asking me about my age for the last three or four years, it’s just that I’m paying big attention to my body and I’m spending a lot of time off the court taking care of that,” he says.

Stepanek has had the same conditioning coach for the past 15 years, and his focus on recovery has helped him stay fit while knocking on the door of 40.

In his mind, he has no expiration date.

“I always said that I don’t see the finish line. The finish line comes either if my body says no more or I wake up in the morning and I feel that I don’t want to go and practice and do the stuff I love to do. Those will be the two moments when I’ll be done. I’m not thinking of it, I’m not seeing it, when it comes, it comes,” he insists.

“I see the guys around me here still playing, like (Daniel) Nestor, (Leander) Paes, they’re 44, 42, and they are still doing well in doubles. And here I am at 38 and still kicking in singles and that for me is a huge motivation to keep going.”

During the two decades he has been playing the sport, so much has changed including court speed, balls, equipment, and technology. Stepanek has managed to adapt to it all. He now finds himself across the net quite often against players half his age, twice his size, and with superior power.

“It happened to me in Tokyo, I played qualies on the first day, I played a guy who was 17 and the next day I played a guy who was 18 and then we played the same guys in the doubles first round, they didn’t even put together my age, so that was quite funny,” he says with a chuckle.

“Obviously it’s already the second or third generation I’m seeing on the tennis court. So definitely it’s a new chapter again, new guys, fresh blood for the tour and it’s great to see them coming up.”

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