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Brain Game: Stepanek's Net Play Unsettles Djokovic

Wimbledon, Great Britain

Stepanek© Getty ImagesRadek Stepanek won 62 per cent of points at the net in his second-round Wimbledon match against Novak Djokovic.

Brain Game author Craig O’Shannessy will break down the big matches each day during The Championships.

For two and a half sets Radek Stepanek couldn’t see the court.

He didn't know whether to serve and volley or stay back and grind; even challenging a line call proved disastrous for the charismatic Czech. But right when the end was rushing fast at him - down two sets and 3-3, 15/40 serving in the third - he staged an incredible comeback against the top seed that electrified the Centre Court crowd.

Djokovic won 6-4, 6-3, 6-7(5), 7-6(5) and what was shaping as a routine result exploded into a raucous, nerve-racking ending that had everyone on the edge of their seats.

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Stepanek was flat in the first two sets, only serving and volleying 15 times in the first set and nine in the second. He won 75 per cent of those points but was dabbling in a strategy that he normally executes as well as anyone in the game. There was more hope than conviction to his play, mirrored by his Hawk-Eye challenges, where he lost seven of eight in the first three sets. Everything seemed complicated.

But when pushed to the edge of defeat, Stepanek finally found the conviction to do what he should have done all along: own the net. Down 3-3 15/40 in the third, he served and volleyed, thumping an ace out wide. He also served and volleyed at 30/40 and Djokovic netted the backhand return.

Escaping that game flipped the pressure in the match and now Stepanek rode on the energy of the crowd into the tie-break. He committed two forehand return errors to go down 2-5 but came to the net three times in the next five points to steal the third set to thunderous applause. Stepanek served and volleyed 25 times (won 20) in the third set, which was one more than he did in the first two sets combined. He also won 66 per cent (12/18) in the fourth set, which he narrowly lost 7-5 in the tie-break. He was surging while Djokovic was battling himself as much as his rejuvenated opponent.

Stepanek only won 38 per cent of his baseline points for the match but won an impressive 62 per cent at the net. Things may have ended quite differently if he was committed to hunting the short ball right from the beginning.

Merciless Murray
Andy Murray broke Blaz Rola in the opening game and never looked back as he atoned for not finishing matches at Roland Garros as well as he would have liked, powering to a 6-1, 6-1, 6-0 victory. Three games in both the opening two sets went to deuce but only one game was extended in the third set as Murray closed the door hard on his Slovenian opponent.

Murray fired seven aces, only missed seven returns and only lost eight points on first serve and 10 on second serves for the match. Murray won exactly double the points as Rola (84 to 42) by dominating the shorter rallies up to four shots, winning 55 points to 28. A major difference between the two players was shot tolerance, with Murray being more consistent and patient at developing points while Rola missed a lot more, trying to pressure with power and direction - a very tough ask against one of the best defenders in the game. Murray completely dominated the baseline, winning 44 points to 25.

Dimitrov Serves It Up
Grigor Dimitrov, the in-form 11th seed from Bulgaria, won a staggering 90 percent (43/48) of first-serve points in moving past Australian Luke Saville 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 on Center Court. Dimitrov regularly thundered down serves over 130 mph, with the fastest being 135 mph – 12 mph faster than Saville’s best of 123 mph. Dimitrov served 11 aces and 50 per cent of all serves he made (34/68) went unreturned by Saville.

Brain GameCraig O'Shannessy uses extensive tagging, metrics and formulas to uncover the patterns and percentages behind the game. Read more at www.braingametennis.com.

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