Commentary

The "Worm" is making his natural habitat on the tennis court

It wasn't long ago Radek Stepanek's world ranking was on the wrong side of 500. But today, under the part-time tutelage of a former Slam champion, the "Worm" is a genuine threat. And to boot, he's dating a WTA star, and has patented his own break-dance.

Originally Published: February 21, 2008
By Ravi Ubha | Special to ESPN.com

Radek StepanekAP Photo/Paul Chiasson, CPAfter numerous travails, Radek Stepanek's on- and off-court results aren't too shabby.
When it was suggested to Radek Stepanek that he could write a rather interesting book, the charismatic Czech let out a hearty laugh.

"Maybe one day,'' he said.

After all, how many players can say they've resurrected their careers following a wandering start and reached the top 10, overcome a freak and career-threatening injury, dated a pair of glamorous female pros, and practiced dance moves on court, all while irking a few opponents -- not to mention their own Grand Slam-winning coach -- in the process?

The first chapter of his career would prove telling. (How about "Being Radekical" as a prospective title?) Born in the same coal mining town near the Polish border that produced model Petra Nemcova, Stepanek was going nowhere as a 23-year-old seven years ago. His ranking was on the wrong end of 500, and he was admittedly too unprofessional to reverse the trend.

That's when he picked up the phone and called countryman and 1998 Australian Open winner Petr Korda for help. The ultratalented lefty had given Stepanek some tips regarding doubles a year earlier but wasn't sure whether he wanted to take a more proactive role. Not all of his dealings with Stepanek were positive -- Stepanek once cheered Korda's double faults during a match.

"I didn't like him that much,'' said Korda.

Korda ultimately agreed to lend a hand, though only if Stepanek listened to him. He assured his new pupil he'd crack the top 100 and land in the main draw of the U.S. Open in 2002.

"My first reaction was that either he's wrong, or he's crazy,'' said Stepanek.

Both predictions came true. Stepanek qualified for top-tier events a tour-best nine times, starting things off with a quarterfinal showing in Doha, where he ousted reigning Wimbledon champ Goran Ivanisevic along the way.

"Since that moment, I have huge trust in [Korda],'' Stepanek said.

Kitchen Closed

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Radek Stepanek is an open book on the court whose displays of agony and elation during matches have made him a fan favorite. "I tried playing without emotions once and I lost 0 and 1," he said Wednesday after beating Bobby Reynolds in the second round of the SAP Open in San Jose. "It was a disaster. To not show one positive or negative emotion, to play with a poker face, that's not me."

But when it comes to more personal issues, the 29-year-old Czech politely but firmly shuts the door. He began fidgeting visibly when a pair of reporters inquired about recent reports that he and fellow Czech star Nicole Vaidisova, 18, were engaged (a Florida newspaper tracked down a marriage license with their names on it in December) and gave a smiling "No answer, no comment" to a direct question about their status.

"That's why they call it a private life, I believe,'' Stepanek said pleasantly. "I'm not inviting much people into my kitchen."

-- Bonnie D. Ford

Korda assembled a team to work with Stepanek, including traveling coach Tomas Krupa, who's still with him today. Stepanek's year-end ranking improved each year from 2001 to 2006.

Having gone 0-for-3 in finals, Stepanek's maiden title finally arrived in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, two years ago.

Stepanek demolished Christophe Rochus, the less prolific of the diminutive Belgian brothers, in 46 minutes and unveiled his version of the "worm,'' a break-dancing move. He first performed it at a party in the Austrian mountain resort of St. Anton four years ago. Not surprisingly, some liquor was involved.

"The waiter was serving Austrian schnapps, and there's a tradition that you have to drink it when they bring it to the table,'' he said. "We did that for half an hour, and it was so much fun. Then we were dancing, and at the end of it, I did the worm. Since then it became popular, and in Rotterdam I just felt in the mood to do it.''

There was more reason to celebrate as the first half of 2006 unfolded. Stepanek found himself in the Hamburg Masters final and was a point away from advancing to the Wimbledon semifinals when veteran Swede Jonas Bjorkman rallied.

Stepanek, armed with a big serve and attacking game quickly becoming extinct, has reached at least the semifinals of tourneys on grass, clay, carpet and hard courts.

The euphoria of rising to No. 8 in the world post-Wimbledon was short-lived.

Warming up at the Canadian Masters a month later, Stepanek felt a stabbing pain in his neck. He pulled out of Toronto, the discomfort temporarily subsided, and he decided to prepare for the U.S. Open.

The pain returned, and Stepanek missed the season's final major and the rest of the campaign. A disk in his neck had become twisted and was affecting some nerves, leaving him with no sensation in his right (playing) hand. He couldn't lift a racket and even considered retiring one evening in Prague.

"I fell asleep while I was watching a movie, and suddenly I woke up in the middle of the night,'' he said. "I had some plates on the table from dinner. I automatically grabbed the plate in the wrong hand, and the plate was empty. It fell down, I broke the table and the plate, and there was glass everywhere. I was like, 'Geez, I can't even lift a plate, will I ever have a chance to lift a racket?'"

Stepanek persevered, enduring painful rehab at all hours of the day for a few months. Predictably, it took him awhile to get going after returning to the circuit at the start of 2007.

The breakthrough eventually came with a semifinal showing on clay in Gstaad, Switzerland, and Stepanek carried that momentum to the U.S. Open series, winning in Los Angeles and making the last four at the Canadian Masters in Montreal. The worm had resurfaced in North America, despite his tersely announced split with fiancée Martina Hingis, the Slovak-born former No. 1.

Then there was the four-hour, 41-minute second-round epic against Novak Djokovic in New York. Leading two sets to one, Stepanek was edged by the newly crowned Australian Open winner in a fifth-set tiebreak.

"That match I think I felt for the first time that we both gave everything, not only physically and tenniswise,'' said Stepanek, who won the decisive fifth match against Switzerland in the Davis Cup world-group playoffs a few weeks later. "It was a show. We showed our emotions and shared them with the crowd, and that was the match I think that now tennis needs.''

Korda, however, wasn't one of those overly impressed. Despite saying he's part of the family, he thinks Stepanek is too emotional on court -- on a related note, Brits Tim Henman and Andy Murray have accused Stepanek of gamesmanship -- and isn't as professional as he should be.

[+] EnlargeRadek Stepanek
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaSince Wimbledon last year, Radek Stepanek has played some of the best tennis of his life, including a title in Los Angeles prior to the U.S. Open.
Korda wouldn't elaborate, although Stepanek, now ranked 34th, confessed that prior to teaming up with Korda he wouldn't take care of his body properly and partied once in a while.

"I still don't agree with a lot of the stuff he does,'' Korda said. "He should be much higher than he is, and he should have more success in tournaments. This will be my lifetime battle him. My wife and I say he's our fourth child.

"He can't lose to Djokovic and be happy after the match. I wouldn't be happy myself, to play a match like, have it in my hand, then lose. Unfortunately he needs to have more fire, then I would say he will have better results.''

Stepanek was guarded when asked about his relationship with WTA starlet and fellow Czech Nicole Vaidisova, 11 years his junior, confirming only that they were dating. Reports last month suggested the two were about to get married.

Sounds like the final chapter should be a good one.

"So far in my career I went through a lot of things, good and bad, and I always try to take it all,'' Stepanek said. "When something bad happens to you, it happens for a reason and it can make you better. Sometimes I feel I should be the best in the world,'' he added, the laugh returning.

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.