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.
“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.
Smile is on my face but the WIN is in @djokernole pocket😅. Congrtas my friend and cant wait for another battle😜✌🏻/ Sice mam usmev na rtu ale VYHRU ma v kapse Novak😅. Gratuluju a nemuzu se uz ted dockat dalsi bitvy , tyhle zapasy me vzdy motivuji pracovat jeste tvrdeji a zlepsovat se😜✌🏻#Doha#Exxonmobilopen2017#Battle#Windy#Sandy#FunMoments#BrothersInArms#Friendship#Respect#Inspirationu
“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.”
It was No. 1 vs No. 2 to end the 2016 season and No. 1 vs No. 2 to start the 2017 season at the Qatar Open final – but will it be Andy Murray or Novak Djokovic standing proud at the end of the year?
A new season always brings with it an opportunity for players to stack up the numbers, achieve new landmarks, shatter records and create history.
All eyes will be on the rivalry between Murray and Djokovic of course, but other subplots include whether Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal can produce one last vintage performance, and if Stan Wawrinka can triumph again.
Here, Sport360 explores all the statistical milestones that some of tennis’ biggest stars will be aspiring to accomplish in the 2017 season.
What are your views on the year ahead?
15 – Nadal will attempt to surpass Pete Sampras (14) and move into second position in the all-time Grand Slam winners’ list behind Federer (the Spaniard is Slam-less for the past two-and-a-half years). Djokovic (12) also stands a chance to match or surpass Sampras & Nadal.
50 – Federer (48 QFs) will bid to become the first man in history to reach 50 Grand Slam quarter-finals. Djokovic (37 QFs) will attempt to become the third man after Federer (48) and Jimmy Connors (41) to reach 40 quarter-finals.
233 – Djokovic (228) will look to go past Connors (233) and move into second position in the list of Grand Slam match wins. Federer (307) is the all-time leader after becoming the first man to register 300 Slam match wins in 2016.
Slam Match Record – Nadal (203-31; 86.75%) and Djokovic (228-36; 86.36%) will battle it out for second place in the Open era Grand Slam match win percentage record. Bjorn Borg is the leader with an 89.81% match record (141-16).
Grand Slam Main Draw Appearances – Roger Federer (68 Slams) will attempt to surpass Fabrice Santoro’s (70 Slams) record for the most ever appearances in Grand Slam singles events.
65 – Spaniard Feliciano López (59) will attempt to become only the second man after Federer (65) to feature in 60 straight Grand Slam events (Main Draw).
3 – Djokovic will bid for a multiple Grand Slam season for a third year in a row (2015-16). Federer is the all-time leader with four straight multiple Grand Slam seasons (2004-07).
7 – At the 2017 Australian Open, Djokovic (6) will look to become only the 4th man in the Open era to win 7+ titles at a single tournament, joining:
Pete Sampras – Wimbledon (7)
Roger Federer – Wimbledon (7)
Rafael Nadal – French Open (9)
21/20 – Djokovic (21 finals) & Nadal (20 finals) will battle it out for 2nd place on the all-time Grand Slam finals list. Federer tops it with 27 Grand Slam finals.
31 – Djokovic (31 SF) will look to take control of 2nd position in the all-time Grand Slam semi-finals list. The Serb is currently tied with Jimmy Connors at 31 major showings in the last four. Federer is the all-time leader with 40 major semi-finals.
8 – Federer will attempt to become the most decorated champion in history at SW 19 by winning his 8th Wimbledon title. He is currently tied with Brit William Renshaw and American Pete Sampras with seven Wimbledon titles.
Triple Double – At the 2017 Australian Open, Djokovic will look to become only the 3rd man to achieve a 3-title streak twice at the same major →
Pete Sampras – Wimbledon – 3 (1993-95) & 4 (1997-00)
Rafael Nadal – French Open – 4 (2005-08) & 5 (2010-14)
Novak Djokovic – Aus Open – 3 (2011-13) & 2* (2015-16)
5+ – Djokovic will look to join Federer as the only players to have appeared in five finals at all majors:
Federer – AO (5) FO (5) WIM (10) USO (7) – 27
Djokovic – AO (6) FO (4) WIM (4) USO (7) – 21
80 – Federer will look to become the first man to record 80+ match wins at three Grand Slams. He needs two match wins at the US Open to achieve this feat → AO (80), FO (65), WIM (84), USO (78).
127 – Djokovic (119-16) will bid to surpass Agassi (127-24) and move into second position on the all-time Grand Slam hard court wins list. Federer is the all-time leader with 158 wins (158-24).
75 – Nadal (72) is out to surpass Guillermo Vilas (75) for the most Grand Slam matches won on clay.
10 – Rafa Nadal (9 Finals – French Open) will look to become only the second man in the Open era to reach 10 finals at a single Grand Slam event; matching Federer’s record of 10 finals at Wimbledon.
11 – At the 2017 US Open, Djokovic will look to become the third man after Jimmy Connors (12 USO; 1974-85) and Roger Federer (11 AO; 2004-14) to reach 11 straight semis at one Grand Slam.
The 25th edition of the Qatar ExxonMobil Open wrapped up Saturday night with a showdown between the two best players in the world – a fitting finale to celebrate the tournament’s silver jubilee.
Professional tennis landed in the Arabian Gulf region 25 years ago at a time when players couldn’t even point to Qatar or the UAE on a map. The Doha event debuted in January 1993 and Dubai followed suit a month later.
Boris Becker was crowned the inaugural Qatar Open champion and the honour roll since then has featured one tennis legend after the other. Stefan Edberg, Roger Federer, Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic… Those are just some of the names who have played in and won the tournament.
Doha has served as the season opener for the ATP for the past two and a half decades and despite it being just a 250-level event, organisers have managed to secure a world-class field each year – a field that is better than some 500-level tournaments. While there was also action in Brisbane, Chennai and Perth last week, Doha is where world No1 Murray and No2 Djokovic committed to play.
From the start, officials in Qatar wanted to use the tournament to promote the country and place it on the global sports map and to do so, a massive investment needed to be made. This year’s edition offered a prize pot of $1,334,270 compared to just $495,630 in Brisbane and $505,730 in Chennai, with all three tournaments being ATP 250s.
As has been the case for the past few years, the players were put up in the sea-side five-star Four Seasons hotel and chauffeured back and forth in sleek BMWs.
The Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex was created to play host to the Doha event, as well as become a home for the Qatar Tennis Federation, which owns and runs the venue and the tournament. With its 24 hard courts and 7,000-seater centre court stadium, the complex is an impressive landmark in the heart of the city.
Having covered the last seven-consecutive editions of the Qatar Open, I couldn’t help but notice how more and more local kids are seen playing tennis on the outside courts on the sidelines of the event. While both Doha and Dubai have significantly helped raise the profile of the Gulf when it comes to global sport, it must be noted that it is Qatar that has benefitted more in-house, creating grassroots initiatives to cultivate local talent and bringing in experts to take charge. Moroccan former world No25 Karim Alami is the technical director of the QTF and tournament director of the ATP event while his compatriot, ex-world No14 Younes El Aynaoui is responsible for Qatar’s national side.
While no Qatari player has broken through just yet, the federation brokers deals with several other governing bodies to ensure their young talents are given wildcards into ITFs around the world, and they’re also given a chance on the big stage at the Qatar Open each year, whether in the main draw or the qualifying rounds.
Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani is a strong supporter of the sport and has been in the stands on more than one occasion last week, including the match that featured a Qatari wildcard.
Big money may be a main attraction for the top players, but it’s doing things the right way that has kept the Qatar Open on the professional calendar and its spreading of tennis culture among its youth that will one day create a local champion.