Juan Martin del Potro and Argentina savour first ever victory – and the unique spirit of Davis Cup
Argentina is only the second country to win the Davis Cup title after playing all four ties away from home
The Davis Cup final of 2016 was a sporting contest with ‘first time’ and ‘never before’ at every turn.
The mighty Argentina, one of the longest-serving members of the Davis Cup family dating back almost a century, had never won the world cup of tennis.
Four times the South American nation had made the final, and was now attempting to win for the first time at its fifth attempt. No other country had lost so many finals without claiming the title.
Juan Martin del Potro had played in his nation’s last two attempts to win, in 2008 and 2011, but both times had seen Spain take the glory.
And while Croatia had won this trophy once before, it had not been with the too-young Marin Cilic, who was about to lead his country into battle from a career-high No6 ranking.
As it happened, the two 6ft 6in figureheads of their respective teams could not be more familiar. Del Potro and Cilic were born just five days apart, grew up alongside one another on the tennis tour from 12-year-old juniors, turned pro in 2005, and both went on to achieve that rare thing in this golden era of tennis, win the US Open. Yet Sunday would be their first meeting in over three years—and what a reunion it would be.
Both had come into fine form this summer, both had beaten the best of the best. Cilic beat new No1 Andy Murray to the Cincinnati Masters title and beat then No1 Novak Djokovic at the Paris Masters. Del Potro defeated Djokovic and Rafael Nadal to eventually win the silver medal at the Rio Olympics, and edged Murray in the Davis Cup semi-finals.
But while Cilic was playing at No6 for the first time in his career, it was increasingly del Potro who continued to defy the odds.
The popular Argentine began the year ranked outside the top 1,000, and was once again attempting to make his way up the ladder after his fourth bout of wrist surgery. By the final in Zagreb this weekend, he was up to No38, yet he gained no points for either his Davis Cup or his Olympic heroics.
And heroics there had been. Few who witnessed it will forget his five-hour epic against Murray in the semis, coming back from a set down in the longest match either had ever played.
However, his performance in Zagreb was arguably greater still. He fought off Ivo Karlovic in four sets Friday, played in Argentina’s doubles loss on Saturday, and knew he had to beat Cilic come Sunday to keep his nation’s hopes alive.
But at two sets down, he faced another of those ‘never before’ moments. He had never come back from two sets down to win a five-setter—and staring across the net at 5-5 in the third set, it increasingly looked like a step too far for a man who last year had contemplated giving up tennis completely.
Yet anyone who recalled his comeback against Roger Federer to win the US Open in 2009, edging the fourth-set tie-break and claiming victory after more than four hours, knew that the gentle giant from Tandil has grit to spare.
As he said of beating Murray in Glasgow in September: “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.”
The atmosphere now was like a cauldron. Does any nation have such a huge, passionate following away from home as Argentina? The sky-blue and white ranks of chanting supporters suggested not—and if they needed any encouragement to believe the impossible, it came at the start of that vital third set.
It is hard to recall del Potro—mobile though he is for such a big man—ever chasing to the net to retrieve a drop volley, pounding back to retrieve a lob, and producing a tweener reply. That he made a lob winner of pin-point perfection from that near-impossible position defied belief. Zagreb erupted.
So he and Cilic seemed to be heading to another five-hour marathon. But after exchanging breaks at the start of the fifth set, Del Potro got a timely break over Cilic to serve out the match, 6-7(4), 2-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-3, in 4hrs 53 mins.
Still the No41-ranked Federico Delbonis, who had played like a lion to push Cilic to five sets in the first rubber, had to play giant-killer if Argentina was going to win the title. He took on 6ft 11in 37-year-old Ivo Karlovic, and he was clearly buoyed up by not just by the fans but by the knowledge that he had taken the serving maestro to three tie-breaks in Tokyo only weeks before, and also in Vienna two years back.
The left-handed Delbonis would hit twice as many winners as Karlovic, and surge to a straight-sets win, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2, in under two hours. Even his team coach was stunned, claiming it was his man’s best ever tennis match.
Del Potro obviously spoke for the team when he asserted that, playing with the blue and white shirt on your back can make remarkable things happen.
And this was a remarkable thing. At 5-5 in the third set of the fourth rubber, del Potro and Argentina stood just two games from defeat. Five hours later, they were both champions.
No wonder Orsanic said of the ATP’s Comeback Player of the Year: “[Juan Martin’s] comeback is the comeback of history, his comeback today was the comeback of the Davis Cup.”
And since his return from surgery this season, del Potro has joined a very select band of players—Djokovic, Murray, and Cilic among them—to beat at least six top-10 players, though his own ranking remains stubbornly short of its rightful place ahead of 2017.
But in sealing victory, another ‘never before’—well almost—bit the dust.
Argentina is only the second country to win the title after playing all four ties away from home. And with its first ever Davis Cup title, Argentina rises to the top of the rankings also for the first time.
But along with the joyous scenes that extended from court, through the presentation ceremony, and on into the press conference, one abiding memory will be the quiet, off-camera actions of Sunday’s stars.
Amid the hubbub, Delbonis headed past the net to congratulate the beaten opponents, followed by del Potro, who embraced each of the Croatian team—reserving a long embrace for his oldest friend/rival Cilic.
For such is tennis, and such is the season-ending Davis Cup. May it never change.