Davis Cup final 2011: Can Rafael Nadal answer Spain’s call?
World No2 Rafael Nadal is aiming to end a difficult year on a high by helping Spain seal Davis Cup glory this weekend
It was barely 12 months ago that Novak Djokovic took the urgent journey from one spectacular indoor tennis tournament””the World Tour Finals in London””to another in his home city of Belgrade.
The Davis Cup final between Serbia and France in which he was so anxious to play would go on to transform the top of men’s tennis, for Djokovic did not lose again for six months and 43 matches.
The world No1 credits the surge of confidence that came from leading Serbia to its first Davis Cup as the catalyst for his 2011 success. With not a little irony, that very success””70 wins from 76 matches by the end of the season””subsequently hindered his contribution to Serbia’s 2011 campaign. He only played the doubles rubber in the quarter-final leg after Wimbledon and withdrew with injury from the semis after his US Open victory. Davis Cup was, quite simply, a step too far for the Djokovic body.
Now, 12 months on, Djokovic’s greatest rival””and victim””during 2011 will attempt to lead his own country to the same title.
Rafael Nadal has played even more than the man who beat him in two Grand Slam and four Masters finals this year””82 main tour matches plus four Davis Cup rubbers””but is about to spearhead Spain’s campaign on his beloved home clay.
There is no question that Nadal is tired. He took time off after the Shanghai Masters to replenish his energy before the WTF in London, yet he still looked below par and exited with just one Round Robin win. What that allowed, though, was a whole week to make the transition back to the surface he loves in the heart of the close-knit Spanish squad.
He’s been here before, and he’s proved his worth before.
He pointed out in London that “I’m lucky: If I’m not in the right condition, the captain can choose another player,” but all his compatriots””and there are six in the top 30 alone””know that he will be first choice.
The six-time French Open champion has only ever lost one best-of-five sets match on clay, against Robin Soderling in 2009, and his Davis Cup record is 18 wins to just one loss””and that was his first ever match, as a 17-year-old, on his worst surface, indoor carpet.
Nadal has already won four rubbers this year, including a near-annihilation of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet in the semi-finals for the loss of only 10 games in six sets.
Nadal has also tasted the atmosphere of the final before. Spain is the most successful country of recent years. All four of its titles have come this millennium, including three in the last four years, and Nadal played a decisive part in two of them.
In 2009, he was part of a 5-0 whitewash of the Czech Republic but his most dramatic role came in 2004 when more than 27,000 people””the biggest official crowd for a tennis match””saw Spain defeat the USA, 3-2, in the magnificent Estadio Olimpico de Sevilla. The young Nadal beat Andy Roddick in four intense sets in the very stadium where he opens Spain’s campaign this year.
For added spice, Spain is up against a country still desperately seeking its first title after reaching three finals. Argentina has lost to Spain three times but its most heart-breaking loss came in the 2008 final when Argentina faced a Nadal-less Spain on home territory but imploded after David Nalbandian took the first rubber and they lost the next three.
So there will be a tension in this tie for many reasons, not least how Nadal will respond to the challenge of a formidable Argentine squad that includes Juan Martin Del Potro.
For Nadal did not just look care-worn in London. He set alarm bells ringing by admitting his lassitude was due as much to reduced passion as tiredness. He has since qualified his words, but only marginally: “It’s true that this season has been tough. More than a lack of passion, it is a weariness from many years of playing at this level, week after week. The important thing now is to work each day at 100 per cent with the excitement needed to win the Davis Cup.”
Nadal is not the only Spaniard showing signs of tiredness. His team-mate, world No5 David Ferrer, is also a veteran winner in Davis Cup with a 16-4 win-loss record and no losses in clay rubbers. He, too, is one of the hardest working players on tour, with 77 matches in his legs this year, plus several Davis Cup matches, including two remarkable wins over Roddick and Mardy Fish on the Americans’ home patch in July.
Yet he also showed just how tired he is after falling in the semi-finals of the WTFs: “I am tired. I am tired, sure. I’m very tired”¦I want to stop but I can’t because I have the Davis Cup. But I’m really tired.”
Now with the draws revealed, the two can measure the scale of their task.
The Argentine captain, Tito Vazquez, had choices but has, of course, selected as his primary singles player the former Grand Slam winner, del Potro. The other opening singles slot has gone to Juan Monaco over a less-than-fit Nalbandian and it is he who opens against Nadal.
Monaco, ranked 26, is an awkward opponent: All his titles have come on clay. The nimble Argentine had an unexpectedly strong end to his season, reaching his first final in almost two years at the Valencia 500 where he beat three home favourites””among them Ferrer. He also went on to score wins over Gilles Simon and Fish in Paris, so is the form player and the least match-rusty in the squad.
He happens, too, to be best friends with Nadal, which gave the Spaniard a dilemma””for a short time, anyway: “I always want my colleagues and my friends to do well in life. I hope that they don’t win this one, though, if possible, please. They can win next year. But of course I wish them the best of luck, that’s true.”
Ferrer will first play del Potro in what could be a very tight one: They have two wins apiece in previous matches but have never met on clay.
Saturday’s doubles is also an interesting match-up. Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco are an experienced pairing but can blow hot and cold””though Lopez has shown some very good form in the last few months.
For Argentina, Eduardo Schwank pairs up with the charismatic Nalbandian who often finds his best in Davis Cup competition. If he plays well and stays fit, it is entirely possible that he will be subbed in for the last singles rubber. He, of all the Argentines, has longed for this title and, when the juices are flowing, he has the talent to beat anyone.
So every one of the players representing their country this weekend has the burning desire to win that can only come from such a patriotic, team-dependent competition.
Argentina, fielding perhaps their strongest, least injured squad, in years, will leave blood on the court before they give up. Del Potro has made it abundantly clear what winning here would mean: “I pulled out of Valencia and Paris to be ready for this competition. I know for Argentinean players and our country this is very important. We are ready for a fight.”
But on the Spanish side, the figure of Nadal could cap a year that has tested his resolve and his confidence more than ever before.
He has not won a title since the French Open, has lost six big finals to Djokovic and been bagelled by both Andy Murray and Roger Federer this autumn. To bring the Davis Cup back to Spain could give him just the shot of confidence and optimism for 2012 that his nemesis, the Serb, enjoyed one year ago.
Friday, 1pm GMT:
R1: Rafael Nadal v Juan Monaco
R2: David Ferrer v Juan Martin del Potro
Saturday, 3pm GMT:
R3: Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco v David Nalbandian and Eduardo Schwank
Sunday, 12pm GMT:
R4: Rafael Nadal v Juan Martin del Potro
R5: David Ferrer v Juan Monaco