In 2006, Radek Stepanek became the latest anonymous Eastern European to make an unlikely climb into the top ten. Who would have thought that two years later, all we'd want to ask him about is his private life?
After starting out last year engaged to Martina Hingis, Stepanek ended it apparently engaged to Nicole Vaidisova. There were reports in December that Stepanek and Vaidisova had applied for a marriage license in Florida, where they both train at the Bollettieri academy. It's not clear quite what that was all about -- no wedding has apparently taken place, but the two are currently dating.
It's created much intrigue -- Hingis and Vaidisova have personalities as different as chalk and cheese (you can guess which is which), not to mention that Stepanek is an unlikely ladykiller with his wispy hair, beestung lips and odd dress sense.
Vaidisova, incidentally, earlier went out with Jurgen Melzer... who used to date Anastasia Myskina... who began playing in the same club (and played the French Open final against) Elena Dementieva... who is dating Maxim Afinogenov... who was on the bronze medal-winning Russian team at Salt Lake
City in 2002 with Pavel Bure... who used to date (and was perhaps married to) Anna Kournikova... who used to play doubles with Martina Hingis.
Just a little a game called six degrees of Martina Hingis -- try it, it's fun.
In any case, Stepanek is so far refusing to crack on the details of that mysterious license incident. "I don't have to explain to anybody what I'm doing in my private life," he said. "The only thing we'll say is that I'll try to keep my private life private as much as possible. I'm not inviting many people in my kitchen."
That means we're forced to concentrate on the on-court side of Stepanek for the moment, and that's a mixed bag. He has a varied, all-court game that is fun to watch when paired against a big hitter. "I can play whatever kind of game -- I can play from the back, I can play serve-and-volley attacking game, I can slice the ball from both sides," he said. "I think that's my biggest advantage to change the rhythm of the game and I think for my opponent it's tougher to react to that quickly."
But his exuberent celebrations -- like the worm dance -- and tendency to gloat over errors doesn't endear him to everyone. All told, Stepanek is a name that comes up frequently when players talk about who they least like to face.
But he doesn't see the need to be aggravated. "All my emotions what I show on the court have
nothing to do with my opponent, and they are not against my opponent. They are always to show my emotions, and to show the people the emotions," he said.
"I tried to play without emotions [once] and I lost the match 0 and 1... it was a disaster. To not show even one even positive or negative emotion, to play with a poker face, that is not me. I have to have fun on the court and I love when people are more into the match.
"If my opponent does it, I will have nothing against him. I will be glad if people show more emotions on the court and not play only like a machine."
Stepanek, who famously went from the 700s to inside the top 70 after he started working with Petr Korda at the end of 2001, got hit by a back injury in 2006 just as he was starting to post some of his best results, like reaching his first Grand Slam quarterfinal at Wimbledon. The problem left him unable to use his right hand for several months. "It's great that I can play tennis again," he said. "I'm seeing things very different because the injury showed me that life can change in a second."
He began to recover his form last summer, winning the title in Los Angeles and playing Novak Djokovic in a memorable five-setter in the second-round of the US Open. Now ranked 35, he wants to back to his earlier rarified position -- and get to actually experience it this time. "I wasn't able to enjoy that time. After I got to top 10, I didn't play one match. But I'm a fighter and I want my position back, and I will do everything for it."
Next he'll face another comeback in progress, Robby Ginepri. Unlike Stepanek, it's been difficult to pinpoint the cause of Ginepri's slide -- he's currently No. 138 after hitting top 15 in 2005. A little too much offcourt indulgence is the best guess. "His situation was self-inflicted," said Roddick. "I think he'll tell you that."
Ginepri produced an impressive performance against James Blake in the quarterfinals, finding the range on his backhand and pouncing on Blake's serves for a 6-2, 6-2 win. Blake, who before the match had said Ginepri was playing "top 5" tennis, expects to see Ginepri bounce back this year.
"I'm sure he's much more mentally prepared for dealing with all the pressures that come with being top 20 in the world," said Blake.
Ginepri, meanwhile, has been working with Jose Higueras and is describing himself as the "new Robbie Ginepri" -- armed with a better serve, better approaches and improved slice backhand.
"I'm a more rounded player than I was in '05, and hopefully I can play better than I did before."