WASHINGTON – Through injuries and illness and, well, aging, Radek Stepanek never doubted he'd one day hoist another trophy overhead as an ATP tournament champion.
He was right.
The unseeded Czech's net-charging style carried him to a 6-4, 6-4 victory over top-seeded Gael Monfils of France in the final of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic on Sunday. At 32, Stepanek is the tournament's oldest champion since Jimmy Connors was 35 in 1988, and the oldest champion anywhere on tour this season.
"We are like a wine: The older we are getting, the better we are. Age doesn't matter," Stepanek said with a smile after winning his first title in 2½ years.
"It's a great feeling to be able to compete with the young guys and still beat them," added Stepanek, who is eight years Monfils' senior.
Stepanek won the point on 29 of his 39 trips to the net. Monfils, in contrast, was content to stay close to the baseline and only made it forward four times.
"He was very aggressive," said Monfils, who fell to 3-11 in tour finals. "It was very tough to impose my game."
And that's exactly what Stepanek's intention was.
"I want to be in control of the match, be the, I would say, 'boss' of the court," said Stepanek, who ended an eight-match losing streak against top-10 opponents.
The No. 7-ranked Monfils might have been feeling the effects of his semifinal, which ended about nine hours after Stepanek's did Saturday. Monfils' 2½-hour, rain-delayed victory over big-serving John Isner finished at 1:15 a.m., with the Frenchman winning in a third-set tiebreaker after saving a match point.
"Today I was a little bit — a fraction — slower," said Monfils, who didn't get to bed until about 4 a.m., then was back on court about 11 hours later.
Asked whether he watched the Monfils-Isner match, Stepanek replied: "To be honest, I fell asleep at 9:30."
More showers came Sunday, resulting in two delays that totaled about an hour.
Stepanek was ranked as high as No. 8 in 2006, but he's dealt with some health issues more recently, including a case of mononucleosis.
"I still believed in myself," he said.
After entering the week ranked 54th, he should rise to about 30th on Monday, thanks to winning six consecutive matches, including three against seeded players. He earned $264,000 for his fifth career title and ended a drought that extended to San Jose in February 2009, then celebrated by dropping to the court and contorting his body in a dance move known as "The Worm."
Stepanek won 52 of his 56 service games in Washington and never even faced a break point against Monfils, who lost serve once in each set Sunday. As Monfils noted about Stepanek: "He's in good shape."
About an hour before the first point of the final, Monfils headed out to a practice court — and he was toting a soccer ball, which he used to get his blood flowing. Still, rather understandably, Monfils got off to something of a sleepy start against Stepanek, double-faulting twice in the opening game before managing to hold. Then, in Monfils' next service game, he got broken to trail 2-1.
Clearly not at his best, Monfils did manage to delight the crowd with his usual athleticism and showmanship. At 15-30 in the third game, Stepanek hit a volley too strongly, and Monfils — at the baseline — leaped and let the ball sail through his legs and drop long.
There were other such moments, including a tremendous jumping save of an overhead to extend another first-set point, and a misguided attempt at reaching another overhead in the second set, resulting in Monfils' racket flying end-over-end and landing at least 10 feet away from him. Seconds later, after Stepanek won a point thanks to a favorable net-cord bounce, Monfils juggled the ball with his feet as though playing soccer, then kicked it over the net, drawing applause from the crowd.
Stepanek closed the first set with a 119 mph serve, one of his two aces. Monfils hit eight — one at 141 mph — but was less dominant when the ball was in play.
"He didn't miss a lot," Monfils lamented.
Keeping the pressure on, Stepanek opened the second set by breaking Monfils again. At 30-all, both men wound up at the net, Monfils hit a tentative volley, and Stepanek replied with a crisper volley to earn a break point. He converted the chance by putting a volley into the corner that Monfils slapped into the net.
Stepanek then held at love to make it 2-0, while Monfils chucked his racket to the blue court after each of two consecutive unforced errors at the baseline. Later, Monfils slid and stumbled while chasing a shot. He dropped his racket and stayed down on his back for a few seconds before checking his right elbow.
He played on. Stepanek played better.
"Until my body falls apart," Stepanek said, "I'll be trying to stay competitive at this level."