Belgrade, Serbia (SportsNetwork.com) - Serbian hero Novak Djokovic and Czech slugger Tomas Berdych were Friday's opening singles winners, as the best-of- five Davis Cup final between the host Serbs and reigning champion Czech Republic is level at 1-1.
The second-ranked former world No. 1 Djokovic kicked things off by handling 34-year-old Czech Radek Stepanek 7-5, 6-1, 6-4 in 2 hours, 10 minutes, while the Day 1 nightcap saw the seventh-ranked Berdych power his way past 23-year- old Dusan Lajovic 6-3, 6-4, 6-3 on the indoor hardcourt in front of more than 20,000 spectators at Kombank Arena.
In the opening set of Djokovic-Stepanek, Djokovic raced out to a 5-2 lead only to see the gritty Stepanek fight back to level it at 5-all. The Serbian star, however, held his serve in the 11th game and then broke his Czech counterpart to take the stanza and control of the match.
The second set was all Djokovic, and in the third the Serbian slugger broke Stepanek for a 5-4 lead and then closed out the rubber on his quality serve.
Djokovic, who is arguably the best hardcourt player in the world, authored five service breaks, compared to only one for the crafty Stepanek.
"I am happy with the way I played. Of course I was nervous at the beginning but it was very important for us to win the first set and then I relaxed," Djokovic said. "I served well in the important moments."
The Australian Open titlist Djokovic has now won his last 23 matches overall, including a title just this week at the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals in London. He hasn't lost since giving way to his great rival Rafael Nadal in September's U.S. Open final.
The Belgrade native improved to 25-7 lifetime in his career Davis Cup singles, including a 23-3 mark indoors, while Stepanek fell to 13-12.
In the nightcap, Berdych eased his way past the talented Lajovic in 1 hour, 54 minutes without facing a break point while breaking his overmatched opponent four times.
"It was a tough one. It was the first time I've seen him on court," Berdych said.
Berdych is now 26-12 lifetime in Davis Cup singles, while Lajovic is 1-1 after playing his first-ever live rubber. The 117th-ranked Lajovic is the lowest- ranked player to appear in a Davis Cup final in nearly a decade.
The Serbs are playing without former world No. 8 Janko Tipsarevic, who's nursing a right heel injury suffered last month in Spain.
Saturday's pivotal doubles rubber tentatively pits a Serbian duo of Nenad Zimonjic and Ilija Bozoljac against a Czech tandem of Lukas Rosol and Jan Hajek, but recent history would suggest that the former Wimbledon runner-up Berdych and Stepanek will play for the visitors in that one. Berdych and Stepanek are 13-1 together in Davis Cup doubles.
Sunday's reverse singles have the red-hot Djokovic battling Berdych and Stepanek taking on Lajovic.
The Czechs beat Spain in last year's World Group final when the heroic Stepanek won a fifth and deciding rubber in Prague.
The Serbs are captained by Bogdan Obradovic, while the Czechs, appearing in their third final in five years, are skippered by interim captain Vladimir Safarik, who is filling on for Jaroslav Navratil after he was hospitalized last week with a blood clot.
Serbia and the Czech Republic have split their two previous meetings. The Czechs beat the visiting Serbs in a quarterfinal matchup last year, while host Serbia prevailed in a semifinal in 2010, the year the Serbs corralled their lone Davis Cup title.