For the master of clay, this was his first match since being side-lined by a hip injury during the quarter-finals of the Australian Open almost 10 weeks ago. Since then, Nadal had both lost and regained the No1 ranking without playing a point, and was about to give the first indication of whether he was ready to defend thousands of points over the coming two months: Monte-Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid, Roland Garros.
He passed the test with flying colours, beating Philipp Kohlschreiber 6-2, 6-2, 6-3, and then the dangerous world No4 Alexander Zverev in equally impressive form, 6-1, 6-4, 6-4.
It did not stop there. Nadal expended almost as much sweat and toil on the side-lines as on court: He lived every point played by his compatriots. And they would need every ounce of that energy to come through a thrilling three days.
Or rather, they needed their other Spanish hero to pull out all the stops in the fifth and deciding rubber.
David Ferrer, now 36 years old, lost out to the 20-year-old Zverev, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2, on Day 1. Then on Saturday, the French Open doubles champions of 2016, Marc Lopez and Feliciano Lopez, almost pulled out victory from two sets down to Tim Puetz and Jan-Lennard Struff, but the Germans clinched with rubber, 7-5 in the fifth set after 4hrs 40mins. Germany led the tie, 2-1.
So a win by Nadal on day three would not be enough. Ferrer would have to dig deep to pull out the win for the home nation.
But there are few men on the tour who will leave more on the court in blood, sweat and toil. It took Ferrer almost five hours, and a gripping 7-6(1), 3-6, 7-6(4), 4-6, 7-5 finish to take Spain into the semi-finals. He fell to the ground, then beamed and wept by turn with family and friends in this, his home town. And finally, he was hoisted to the shoulders of his team-mates—and rightly so.
For arguably, this tie was as important a morale-booster for Ferrer as it was for Nadal. There were times during the last 16 months when it seemed that the former world No3, a stalwart of the top 10 for six solid years, was showing the wear and tear of an arduous game-style played through 18 years as a pro.
During 2017, he lost his opening match 10 times, and won only 24 matches in the season. This year was beginning to take on a similar look, and he suffered three opening losses to three of the biggest youngsters on the tour, Andrey Rublev, Karen Khachanov and Zverev. Arriving in Valencia, Ferrer’s ranking had been stuck in the 30s for almost an entire year, but while there are no ranking points for wins in Davis Cup, his victories on home soild may be just the tonic Ferrer needs to catapult him into the clay swing.
He was, in any case, the toast of Valencia on this particular Sunday afternoon.
Spain has now won its last 27 home Davis Cup ties, dating back to 1999, but the five-time champions’ next tie will be on French soil against the defending champions.
The French scored an impressive 3-1 victory away from home against a tough Italian team headed by Fabio Fognini, who won the second rubber against Jeremy Chardy after compatriot Andreas Seppi only just failed to score an upset over the No11 ranked Frenchman, Lucas Pouille.
The Major doubles champions Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert made short work of winning the Saturday rubber, 6-4, 6-3, 6-1, over Fognini and Simone Bolelli. It was then down to Pouille to close out the deal with a comeback win, 2-6, 6-1, 7-6(3), 6-3, to take France into their third consecutive semi-final.
Croatia reached the semi-finals for the second time in three years after world No3 Marin Cilic beat Kazakhstan’s Mikhail Kukushkin, 6-1, 6-1, 6-1.
Cilic took an early lead for the home team, losing only five games in the first rubber to Dmitry Popko, before a weary Borna Coric lost out in four sets to Kukushkin. But a strong Croatian pairing of Ivan Dodig and Nikola Mektic took the doubles point, and Cilic did the rest.
Croatia will next host the USA, who beat an underpowered Belgium in straight rubbers, with singles wins for John Isner and Sam Querrey and the doubles rubber courtesy of Ryan Harrison and Jack Sock.
France (at home) vs Spain
Croatia (at home) vs USA
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge