What is more, with this new-format, week-long, 18-team Davis Cup being played entirely in Madrid, here was Spain in front of a home crowd.
In truth, once world No1 Nadal announced his commitment to the tournament, and with such depth in a squad that included world No9 Roberto Bautista Agut and No27 Pablo Carreno Busta, the home nation was one of the teams to beat. That the squad also boasted two top-10 doubles players with a Major and an ATP Finals title to their names, Feliciano Lopez and Marcel Granollers—the former a multiple singles titlist too—made the odds still shorter.
Spain, then, could call on five quality players, and did so, and even the disappearance of Bautista Agut for two days because of personal tragedy, the death of his father, did not halt the momentum. But then with Nadal playing and winning all his four singles matches, and then combining with both Granollers and Lopez to win in doubles as well, Spain became an irresistible force.
Indeed Nadal had the look of a man who would not be denied one more triumph in a resounding year for the 33-year-old. He became the oldest year-end No1 after winning two Majors and two Masters, plus reaching the final at the Australian Open and semis of Wimbledon. With his wins this week in Madrid, he was up to 28 straight in Davis Cup singles since losing his first back in 2004.
Ranged against this powerhouse of players, city and nation was Canada, who came through a tough pool with wins over higher-ranked Italians and dangerous Americans. All the more impressive was that Canada, unable to play an injured Felix Auger-Aliassime, used just two players throughout the tournament: Denis Shapovalov and Vasek Pospisil.
And while the explosive single-handed 20-year-old Shapovalov has climbed to No15 after an impressive end to his 2019 season, compatriot Pospisil was ranked just 153 after back surgery.
These had been hard times for the older Pospisil: He had reached a singles rank of 25 while still age 23—way back in 2014. However, his big-serve-and-forehand combo was a big asset on the fast courts at the Caja Magica—and with a Wimbledon doubles title on his resume, he was also a valuable asset in doubles.
Not that Shapovalov lacked doubles skills: He had played almost a full season of doubles in 2019, learning his trade alongside the doubles veteran Rohan Bopanna.
However by the time Canada faced a fine, youthful Russian team, Pospisil began to look weary, so come the last tie—marking Canada’s first ever Davis Cup final—Auger-Aliassime was subbed in to play the first rubber against the returning Bautista Agut.
It was a risk, and no mistake, to put the 19-year-old Canadian star into the Madrid cauldron after six weeks side-lined by an ankle injury, and while the teenager held his own through a competitive first set, his error-count piled up under the pressure.
Auger-Aliassime struggled in the early games to get a foot-hold, able to score not a point against the resilient, super-fit tennis of Bautista Agut. But all at once, he had a break point at 4-3, until the Spaniard came up with more good serves to hold firm in a seven-minute game. This was warming up nicely.
They raced, flat-out, to a tie-break in under 50 minutes, changed ends still all square at 3-3, but with the home man 5-3 ahead, the Caja Magica reverberated with noise. It was a huge test of the calm resolve of the teenage Canadian, and the youngster rocketed two forehands well wide to concede the set, 7-6(3).
The Canadian had made far more winners, but also far more errors than Bautista Agut. Could he retain his composure in the face of the resolve and energy of the home player, who was surely galvanised still more to mark the memory of his father.
Bautista Agut would not be denied: He broke immediately in the second set, 2-0, after the teenager double faulted, and then fired two more forehand errors when he had a fleeting chance to break back.
However, Auger-Aliassime did break through in the next game, only to concede another break, to love, 2-4. He had to hang very tough to hold for 5-3, but this was a battle already lost. The gutsy Spaniard served out the match for perhaps the most emotional victory of the week, 6-3.
It was now down to the other youthful Canadian to pull off the biggest task in tennis: beating Nadal in front of a passionate, packed Caja Magica. With luck, he would not know that the Spaniard had remained unbroken in his last five matches, so improved was that element of Nadal’s game.
And it was Shapovalov who faced an early break point, but his bold tennis fended off the threat, now with a touch volley winner, now a rangy backhand. However, he could not resist another in the sixth game, as Nadal turned defence into attack in the flash of a racket, 4-2. The Spaniard served out the set, 6-3, having dropped just three points on serve, with 30 points to 19.
The noise and tension cranked up in the second set, with the home fans certain that their man was now unstoppable. But the explosive Canadian stayed focused on the task, full of energy, going for his shots, and it earned him a first break chance in the sixth game. It took Nadal nine minutes to hold, and he turned to team and crowd, pumped his arms, and asked for more noise.
It went, in the event, to a tie-break with both men playing some extraordinary rallies—a high-quality sequence of games that demanded and got the best from each of them.
And come that tie-break, Shapovalov tried to keep up the pace, while Nadal slowed things down, holding the play until the crowds quietened—they never did—and misjudged all his remaining challenges. Even so, it would be Nadal who earned match points, 6-4, only for the Canadian to find two winners to level, and then work set point.
It was for nought: Nadal’s serving and intensity would not give way, and a final attempted forehand winner down the line from the Canadian found the net. Spain was jubilant, 7-6(7), Nadal collapsed on the court, Shapovalov bent double in dismay.
It was, perhaps, the only result after seven long days and nights that had packed out only the Spanish matches. The home nation, watched by its king and the backer of this revamped tournament, Barcelona footballer Gerard Pique, would not fail: That the king of Spanish sport should play the winning match was as complete a circle as the ITF could wish for.
As Nadal concluded:
“It was a perfect week. It was emotional, the crowd’s support was vital. There is not a better place to lift this trophy again. For me it was an honour to share this with everybody… Our team spirit prevails.”
But if there is one more take from this week’s rollercoaster Madrid ride, it is confirmation of events at the Nitto ATP Finals. There are plenty of young players in the wings, ready and able to take on the world in 2020.
Shapovalov was outstanding from start to finish, as were Andrey Rublev and Karen Khachanov. Along with Stefanos Tsitsipas, Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev in London, there are many new players primed to whet the tennis appetite.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge