Davis Cup final: Argentina’s Del Potro relishes ‘very special moment’ against old friend Cilic in Croatia
Juan Martin del Potro and Marin Cilic have not played one another in over three years ahead of the 2017 Davis Cup final
For two men born just five days apart, who have grown up alongside one another on the tennis tour from 12-year-old juniors, to turning pro in 2005, and to achieving that rare thing in this golden era of tennis, winning the US Open, it is surprising that Juan Martin del Potro and Marin Cilic have not played one another in over three years.
Both are hard men to miss. Both are popular with fans and fellow players for their mild, courteous dispositions, both are towering 6ft6in figures, with the experience of top-10 rankings and with the quality to have beat all the “big four”, Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal.
Now both hoped to lead their nations to Davis Cup victory just as those four giants of the game had done over the last six years.
Not that Croatia was without success in this world cup of tennis: The small nation had won in 2005. But Cilic was too young to be part of that historic run and, unlike this second attempt, the final had not been on home soil. So this would be a very special occasion.
But there was no doubting that this was at least as special for the visitors. Argentina is one of the longest-serving nations in an international competition that now includes 128 countries. And no other country has reached the final as often without winning—this will be their fifth attempt.
During his last tournament in Basel, Del Potro tried to explain the scale of the event for himself and for his country.
“It’s a very important final for Argentina—Croatia, too… It’s a very important moment for us and for me, it’s going to be my third final in Davis Cup and we never could win, but this year is very special. My biggest goal is to finish the final without any injuries and with my wrist in good shape.”
He referred to his persistent and repeated wrist injuries, resulting in many surgeries, that have dogged him ever since winning that Major in New York in 2009. He began 2016 ranked outside the top 1,000, but has made remarkable progress back up the rankings since his return in February, and notably at the Olympics, where he beat Djokovic and Nadal on the way to claiming the silver medal in a tough contest against Murray.
Of course this year, he garnered no points for his efforts, any more than he or Cilic did for Davis Cup matches. But as he said in Basel:
“When you play with your country behind you it’s always special and after my match against Andy I couldn’t move my legs.
“But to be honest, I don’t care about the points. I don’t play thinking about the rankings, but playing with the Argentine flag on my shirt is very big.”
He referred to his epic five-set win over Murray in front of a Glasgow crowd that helped Argentina past GB and into the final. It was the longest match either man had ever played.
Del Potro arrived in Zagreb rested, however, which is more than can be said of Cilic, who went from his first Masters victory—over Murray—in Cincinnati, to the semis in Tokyo, the title in Basel, the semis in Paris, and then one final effort at the World Tour Finals to claim a three-set win over Nishikori in the round-robins.
So he arrived back home in positive mood, at a career-high No6: “Playing now at home, I guess it’s going to be extremely exciting for the fans, for the players, for both teams. I think the teams are going to make the big difference. The team energy, the team spirit. I know Argentina is going to be quite motivated for the final. We have to do the same in our team.”
In practice, however, it was possible these big men would not play one another at all: If Croatia won the first two singles rubbers and then doubles on Saturday, any further matches would be ‘dead’.
So the No2 men, as always, would be vital, and Croatia. And in the final squad, Croatia captain, Daniel Orsanic, left out young Borna Coric, despite the 20-year-old’s tie-winning efforts against Belgium and the USA. For Coric was forced to have knee surgery this autumn: Indeed his very last match was a losing one in the Davis Cup semi-finals.
However Croatia is blessed in also having one of the most feared servers in tennis, the veteran Ivo Karlovic, who has enjoyed a resurgent year to take him to No20 in the rankings via two titles from three finals. It means that the 37-year-old Karlovic has come out of Davis Cup retirement to take part this weekend as the oldest man in the top 100.
Orsanic has named the same squad that beat Great Britain in the semis, with Federico Delbonis, Guido Pella and Leonardo Mayer joining del Potro. All four have contributed points in live rubbers for Argentina this year.
Nuts and bolts
Date: 25-27 November
Venue: Arena Zagreb, Croatia, indoor hard, medium pace
Ranking: Croatia 5 vs Argentina 2
Friday 25, 2pm (1pm UK)
R1 Marin Cilic (No6) vs Federico Delbonis (No41): H2H 2-0 to Cilic
R2 Ivo Karlovic (No20) vs Juan Martin del Potro (No38): H2H 4-1 to del Potro
Saturday 26, 3pm (2pm UK)
R3 Ivan Dodig and Franko Skugor vs Guido Pella and Leonardo Mayer
Sunday 27, 2pm (1pm UK)
R4 Cilic (No6) vs del Potro (No38): H2H 8-2 to del Potro
R5 Karlovic (No20) vs Delbonis (No41): H2H 3-1 to Karlovic
Did you know…?
· The Croats won the tournament in 2005—the only other occasion that they have reached a final—to become the first unseeded nation to win the Davis Cup.
· The Argentines have reached four finals but have never won the Davis Cup
· The teams last met four years ago, with Argentina winning at the quarter-final stage. On that occasion, del Potro beat Cilic in the fourth rubber. Argentina also won the other two meetings between the nations, also quarter-finals, in 2002 and 2006.
· If Argentina wins the title, it will be just the second nation, along with France in 2001, to win having played all four ties away from home.
· Cilic will equal Ivan Ljubicic in first place in Davis Cup singles wins by a Croat if he wins both rubbers: He currently has 21 wins.
· Karlovic’s last Davis Cup appearance came in that 4-1 defeat to Argentina in 2012, when he lost to del Potro in straight sets.
· Karlovic is hoping to become the oldest man to win any Davis Cup rubber since 1933 and the oldest to win a singles rubber since 1920.
· Mayer won the longest singles rubber in Davis Cup history in the first round of the 2015 campaign, beating Brazil’s Joao Souza in 6hrs 43mins. It was the second longest singles match in history after the 11hr Isner-Mahut epic at Wimbledon in 2010.
· Mayer is bidding to extend his 10-match winning streak in singles rubbers dating back to the 2013 semi-finals against the Czech Republic.
· Federico Delbonis has enjoyed his best season with a career-high ranking of 33, and beat both Andreas Seppi and Fabio Fognini in the quarter-finals.