- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 7, 2011

It is unlikely that any but the most ardent tennis fans in Rock Creek Park this past week even knew who Radek Stepanek was. The 32-year-old from the Czech Republic wasn’t on any Legg Mason Tennis Classic posters or bus ads like former champ Andy Roddick, who withdrew before even playing a match.

Earlier this week, Stepanek made a point to say that he’s “not playing for the stories,” but on Sunday he finished off a nice little story of his own by beating No. 1 seed Gael Monfils 6-4, 6-4 in the final.

In a sport where 30 is usually the beginning of the end - if not the end itself - Stepanek won his first title since 2009 and showed there was a little more left in his career.

Stepanek is the tournament’s oldest champion since Jimmy Connors won it in 1988 at the age of 35.

“We are like a wine, you know. The older we are getting the better we are,” a smiling Stepanek said. “I always say, age doesn’t matter. It depends how you feel.”

Stepanek was feeling over the moon - enough that he dropped to his knees in the seconds after clinching the victory and did the dance known as “the worm.” After a year of in[JUMP]<t-5.5>juries and struggles, this one was particularly satisfying.

“I do the worm only when I win a tournament,” he said. “I still believed in myself, still believed in hard work. This is the thing that you are waiting for - you are trying to work hard and practice hard every day.”

There’s not much that is exciting about Stepanek’s regular game, save for his aggressive play at the net and often not letting the ball hit the court before slamming it back at an opponent. Because of that - and the fact that Americans are natural fan favorites - Stepanek found himself on the shallow end of crowd support at this tournament.

Even against Monfils, Stepanek was the second choice, even as some couldn’t pronounce the Frenchman’s name. Fans tried to will Monfils back into the match late in the second set, though they eventually applauded Stepanek, who outfoxed the 24-year-old all afternoon playing around a couple of rain delays.

During Sunday’s final at the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center in Northwest, Stepanek did to the No. 7 player in the world what he did to Donald Young in the semifinals - take Monfils out of his rhythm. The athletic Monfils, considered one of the quickest players on the ATP Tour, had no answers for Stepanek’s style of challenging him around the net. Once, in the second set, Monfils had to stop himself from slamming his racket when Stepanek put the ball past him with perfect precision.

“I think he was very aggressive, and I expect that,” Monfils said. “He reached the net very fast, so it was hard for me to impose my game.”

Monfils was a victim of rain Saturday that caused his semifinal match against John Isner to end just after 1 a.m. He didn’t get to sleep until 4 and admitted being “a fraction slower” than normal.

“To be honest, I’m unlucky,” Monfils said. “I never had a chance to get a good rest.”

Meanwhile, a rested Stepanek - who fell asleep at 9:30 Saturday night - showed off the poise of a veteran and didn’t look at all like a player in his first final since early 2010.

Michael Llodra of France and Nenad Zimonjic of Serbia won the doubles side of the tournament, beating Robert Lindstedt of Sweden and Horia Tecau of Romania 6-7(3), 7-6(6), 10-7 in Sunday’s final. The doubles draw was hurt by the early loss of the top-seeded Bob and Mike Bryan and a couple of withdrawals by prominent players who decided that rest for singles play was more important.

Stepanek entered the Legg Mason ranked 54th in the world, but this tournament could be a big steppingstone toward a bigger goal - getting seeded for the U.S. Open later this month.

“Definitely it will give me a lot of confidence, a great boost for the rest of the summer,” he said.

Perhaps even more importantly, Stepanek showed he can be someone other players aren’t too eager to face.

“I’m looking forward to being back in there and being in opponents’ minds before the match,” he said. “That’s a great feeling to have when they are scared to play you.”

He won’t be a surprise much longer, but with title in hand, that’s more than OK for Stepanek.

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