Davis Cup 2011: Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer are the pride of Spain
Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer power Spain to a fifth Davis Cup title to leave Argentina empty handed in their fourth final
Amid debates about its popularity, its relevance and how troublesome it is to fit into the tennis year, the Davis Cup proved once more that it hits the spot few other tournaments can reach.
It was lifted by Argentina wanting this trophy perhaps more than any other nation, having been thwarted in three finals.
It added spice that they had fallen, at home to a Rafael Nadal-less Spain, the last time they met, and that Spain was this time the hot favourite, at home and on clay.
It helped that Argentina had its three top players fit and injury-free and that Spain’s two top-five stars were bone-weary from their campaign at the World Tour Finals.
The drama was kick-started by Nadal in his opening match against great friend, clay-expert and in-form Argentine Juan Monaco: He ripped up the court as though playing in June, at Roland Garros and for the French title.
His resounding victory, for the loss of just four games, was merely an appetizer to a marathon of racing feet, huge forehands and heart-bursting spirit in a near-five-hour match between hustling David Ferrer””desperate after his giant-killing activities in London for a rest””and the big man from Argentina, Juan Martin Del Potro. It went to Ferrer””6-2 6-7 3-6 6-4 6-3″”but the men scored exactly the same number of points: 149.
The drama continued into the final day after David Nalbandian, who has played 21 ties and won 34 rubbers for Argentina, stormed to a doubles win with Eduardo Schwank.
Nalbandian, who turns 30 on the day that 2012 dawns, played with such confidence and finesse that he became hot favourite to play the final rubber against Ferrer should the tie extend to a fifth and deciding match.
And what lifted this most patriotic and nerve-tingling of tournaments to near fever-pitch was its scale. It outdid the biggest that tennis has to offer: Arthur Ashe outdoors in New York and the O2 indoors in London. Not since this same event on the same weekend in 2004 had its 27,000 audience been matched when, in this same arena, Estadio Olimpico de Sevilla, Spain beat the USA.
Now, in front of Carlos Moya, the winner of the decisive rubber for Spain in 2004, Manolo Santana, who scored the most wins in the most ties of any Spaniard, and the king of Spain, Del Potro had to face the most daunting of all prospects.
Nadal boasted a 19-match winning streak in Davis Cup singles””he had only ever lost one rubber, as a 17-year-old””and he had beaten the Argentine in all three meetings this year.
After his energy-sapping loss to Ferrer on Friday, then, Del Potro needed to keep the match short and that meant stepping into the court to take the ball early. He tried to do just that as he opened serve, attacked the net on the first two points only to be passed by Nadal. Two double faults at deuce handed an opening break to the Spaniard.
In the second game, the tactics were reversed, with Nadal attacking the net and Del Potro resisting from the baseline. It may have seemed counter-intuitive for the Argentine but it worked and Del Potro broke back to win the first of six straight games and the first set, 6-1. His weapon was his merciless and jaw-dropping forehand, a shot hit flat and hard to within inches of the baseline. He hit 18 outright winners in those seven games, 14 of them from the forehand. Nadal managed just three.
Already the crowd was boiling over and despite their relatively smaller numbers, the Argentines were as vociferous as their hosts. Not for the first time, the umpire struggled to contain the noise.
Del Potro continued to dominate at the start of the second set, breaking Nadal to love and leading 40-0 on his own serve before Nadal regained his battered concentration and broke back””his first game since the first of the match. He made his first hold and maintained the advantage throughout the set to level proceedings, 6-4.
It felt like the death knell for the Argentine. The power subsided in his forehand, his serve yielded barely any free points””indeed he fired only three aces in the match. His cause was further hindered by thigh strapping that gradually crept down his leg, forcing him off court at the end of the set for running repairs. They didn’t help.
Nadal, now with the signature “strut” and with his fellow players orchestrating the crowds to a fever pitch of support, surged to 3-0 in the third and not until the fifth game did he lose a point on serve for six service games””26 straight points. He broke again in the sixth with a remarkable running forehand, taken airbound, that curved out of court and back into the extreme corner for an outright winner and a 6-1 set.
Nadal opened the fourth set with another break and it all looked done and dusted until, in the fourth game, Del Potro rediscovered his first-set forehand, broke back and found himself serving for the set.
But pressure took hold and the Argentine produced his first double fault since the first set. They headed to a tie-breaker on the stroke of four hours, which ended in a flurry of errors from Del Potro and a 7-0 whitewash for Nadal.
Never before had Nadal played the rubber that sealed the Davis Cup but this time he fell to the red dirt in joy. Spain won this most coveted of titles for a fifth time and Argentina””turning a blind eye to the song’s advice””cried.
Never has Nadal’s smile been bigger””not surprising for his first taste of victory since he played on his golden surface in the final of the French Open. And it caps another great year in the life of a man who is his nation’s hero, with or without the No1 ranking or the other three Grand Slam titles.
And as if to counter any question about his desire for this game, it was banished immediately after the on-court celebrations. He announced that he will not play Davis Cup next year so that he can focus on the Olympics and, likely as not, that No1 crown.
For drama, for spectacle, for atmosphere and quality, this was a fitting end to the tennis season. And with Nadal already raring to go next year, Roger Federer back to No3 after an unbroken three-tournament run and Novak Djokovic the outstanding player of 2011, things are shaping up very nicely for 2012.