- Sandra Harwitt
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BARCELONA -- It's hard to imagine a player in today's multimillion dollar driven world of professional tennis choosing not to seek a racket endorsement deal.
But that's exactly the alternative Radek Stepanek, the 12th-best player in the world, embraced when he switched to a Bosworth Tour 96 racket during the December offseason last year. The Bosworth Tour 96 can best be described as a private-label racket with personally crafted specifications for each player.
When Stepanek takes to the court in the Davis Cup final against Spain this weekend, he will do so with his no-contract, custom-made racket designed by the father-son duo of Warren and Jay Bosworth.
Stepanek explains the giant leap from his contracted Volkl racket, which the Bosworths would tweak, to the Bosworth-invented racket as a quest to sharpen his game: "I asked myself, 'What can help me to improve? What can help me with the small little things?' Since the first moment I played with it, I trusted the racket. I believed in what I was holding in my hand."
The Bosworths have long been considered genius gurus at augmenting factory-delivered rackets to meet the needs of professional players. Ivan Lendl often tells of times he would be on the road and discover his rackets weren't exactly performing to his liking. The fix: Lendl would call Warren and literally "play" his racket for him over the phone -- strumming his hands across the strings as if it were a guitar. Warren would tape the sound, diagnose the problem and ship off corrected rackets.
Warren Bosworth originally came to the tour when he started traveling with top-fiver Brian Gottfried and his bride, Windy, about 30 years ago. Fellow players immediately took notice of Bosworth, who quickly became a magic man to many of the Open Era greats. A tour of Bosworth's headquarters today is a treasure-trove history of tennis. Cubby holes in the workroom bear grip molds and other paraphernalia for Ivan Lendl, Rod Laver, Pete Sampras, Patrick Rafter, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Monica Seles and Venus Williams, to name just a few superstars who at some point in their career were linked to the racket impresario.
As for Stepanek, it was his Czech connections that led him to the Bosworths.
His coach, 1998 Australian Open champion Petr Korda, was leaning on Stepanek to consult with the Bosworths. But it took Lendl's urging, highlighted by an admonishment that no true professional would consider playing with rackets shipped straight from the factory, to provide the necessary incentive.
"It was more like I had to kick him than lead him there," Lendl said. "I told him that I know what Warren can do and [what] Jay can do. It's one less headache you have if you don't have to worry about your rackets. It gives you a peace of mind that you know you're always prepared."
Stepanek's inaugural season playing with the unique Bosworth racket has gone well.
He opened the year by winning the first tournament he played, Brisbane. A few weeks later, he won the San Jose crown to win two of the first four tournaments in which he played this season, and reached the Memphis final in his fifth tournament.
He also has been impressive in his last four tournaments of the year, reaching the semifinals at Paris and Basel, Switzerland, and the quarterfinals at Vienna and Shanghai.
And in Davis Cup competition, Stepanek has been instrumental in the Czech Republic reaching its third-ever final -- and the first since 1980, when the country won its only Cup crown. He posted a 3-1 singles record and 3-0 doubles record in the first three Davis Cup rounds this year. In the semifinals, Stepanek provided the Czech Republic with a 2-0 lead by winning an historic five-hour, 59-minute marathon against Croat Ivo Karlovic, who fell 16-14 in the final set despite serving 78 aces in the match.
Interestingly, this past winter, even before there was any hint that the Czech Republic would face Spain in the Davis Cup final, Jay Bosworth was altering Stepanek's racket with an eye toward beating Rafael Nadal.
"Stepanek's game four years ago was based on hitting a ball big and quick through the court and hurting you enough that he could get in to the net," Jay Bosworth said. "Nowadays, he has to widen the court, and his shot to widen the court, in my opinion, can be hurt by one guy who's Spanish and incredibly quick and right there at the top. So I shaved the handle that his left hand -- his top hand -- controls to a slightly different configuration. Now he goes through the ball differently when he does shorter angles, and the ball does what we were looking for it to do."
Now is as good a time for Stepanek to find out if Bosworth's tinkering will work wonders against Nadal, a player he has taken only one set off of in four matches.
"I think it will be a special tie," Stepanek said after a practice session at the Palau Sant Jordi, where the Davis Cup final is taking place. "We're here to fulfill our dreams. The last two weeks I've been preparing for this moment."
In fact, as recently as last Tuesday, Jay Bosworth went to Stepanek's Bradenton, Fla., home to consult on fine tuning his racket for the Davis Cup final.
"Obviously knowing in advance who you will be facing, and what the conditions will be like, etc., makes it possible to really dial things in," Bosworth said. "We look at specific situations that will likely occur, and how best to either defend against or take advantage of those situations. From there, we will tweak the frame and string specs to maximize Radek's performance."
And to add some extra pizzazz, some of the special tweaks will be cosmetic rather than functional. Stepanek will unveil special frames bearing a "Czech flag" color scheme, as well as "Radek Stepanek" and "Czech Republic" logos.
Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.
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