Stepanek Hangs Up Racquet, But Wants To Stay In Tennis
After more than 20 years competing on the ATP World Tour, Radek Stepanek has announced his retirement from professional tennis. The Czech star hangs up his racquet after winning five tour-level singles titles and 18 doubles trophies.
Stepanek got off to a good start in 2017, advancing to the quarter-finals in Doha before reaching the second round of the Australian Open as a qualifier. But back surgery on 22 March to deal with a chronic condition stopped his season. And after months of recovery, rehab and an attempt to get back into proper playing shape, the Czech told his family and team that he was done.
“Every day has been a question mark. I had small pain every day and that was painful. I didn’t have days when the pain was going away and after conversations with the doctors I started to practise 50, 60, 70 per cent. But I didn’t get to more than that,” Stepanek told ATPWorldTour.com. “I realised that the body was showing me that it had had enough.”
Nevertheless, the 38-year-old accomplished plenty in his career, having reached a career-high in singles of No. 8 in the Emirates ATP Rankings while also climbing to No. 4 on the doubles court. The only active players who have broken into the Top 10 (at separate times) in their careers are Jurgen Melzer, Jack Sock and Fernando Verdasco. Stepanek combined to win 697 tour-level matches in both disciplines, and earned more than $11 million in prize money.
“I’m very proud of my achievements and the whole team who helped me throughout my career, they definitely have their signature on that,” Stepanek said. “I think the [award] suitcase is packed. Obviously there is a trophy missing for a singles Grand Slam title, which I wasn’t that close to. But I’ve done a lot in my career, and it’s something that I can be proud of.”
The Monte-Carlo resident first entered the Emirates ATP Rankings in singles on 31 July 1995, when he was 16 and he broke into the Top 100 in 2002. At the tour-level stop that propelled him over that hurdle, in Gstaad, Stepanek defeated Roger Federer, who was ranked No. 11 at the time.
Just months later, Stepanek would break into the Top 10 in singles after advancing to the quarter-finals at Wimbledon, despite never previously passing the third round at a Grand Slam.
But Stepanek’s favourite tennis memory came almost exactly five years ago, when he clinched the Czech Republic’s first Davis Cup title in 32 years in a deciding fifth rubber against Spain's Nicolas Almagro.
“You’re playing for your country,” said Stepanek, who was also proud to win the mixed doubles bronze medal with Lucie Hradecka at the 2016 Olympics. “That moment when my parents were alongside sitting there in the box, seeing me doing it with the biggest pressure I ever had in my life on the tennis court, and my dream came true, that was so special.”
Stepanek might have had one of the funkiest games on tour, armed with unorthodox groundstrokes and a penchant for rushing the net, but it certainly was successful. He was one of the hardest workers on and off the court, keeping his body flexibile and agile well into his 30s, which helped prepare him to play virtually any shot at any time from anywhere on the court, all the while having one of the best pairs of hands in the sport. That propelled him to finish 11 seasons inside the Top 100 of the Emirates ATP Rankings in both singles and doubles.
The Czech was also known for his fire and energy on the court, as he was never willing to back down from an opponent. His polos were also easily recognisable, from the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline shirts of his play at the US Open to apparel with a lion on it. All of that combined with Stepanek's shotmaking ability and ensuing reactions made the Czech one of the most colourful players on tour.
The right-hander planned on playing at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, but his body did not allow that to happen.
“I realised that I wouldn’t be able to play on the level that I was used to. I either play tennis 100 per cent or I don’t,” Stepanek said. “I realised that I’d be going to tournaments with a question mark. 'Would my body hold up? Would my body survive a match or two?' That’s not the way I play tennis. I didn’t want to do it.”
But Stepanek’s retirement does not mean he will be stepping away from the sport. When considering what lies ahead, he asked himself one key question:
“In what department will I be better than I am in tennis? Will it be in business? Will it be opening a restaurant? Maybe a car dealership, what will it be?” Stepanek said. “The best I can be will always be in tennis. I think I know this sport up and down, inside out and I have incredible experiences throughout my career. I’ve met such great people, incredible people that I’ve learned from and I’m a student of the game. I believe that with what I’ve been through I can pass it to somebody one day, and we’ll see how it goes, but my intention is to definitely be part of the game.”