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Roulette on the Pampas 11/24/2008 - 12:25 PM


by Pete Bodo

Mornin, TWibe. Y'all saw what happened over the Davis Cup weekend, so I don't think you need the Pony Express to gallop in with the long-awaited news. To me, this was a final-round tie that illustrated why this event is unique (without having any conspicuously "unique" features; it is, after all, a straight-up, best-of-five matches event relying on as traditional a format as exists). Also why it's inspiring (Feliciano Lopez, an ATP journeyman, emerged as the Most Valuable Player in leading his team to an upset that will become a staple of Davis Cup lore and legend). And why it's the epitome of individual satisfaction, if not glory. You win Wimbledon, you bathe in the glory rained upon a conquering hero, or triumphant gladiator. You win Davis Cup, and the hot glare is more like a glow, and you get to bathe in it with your comrades, as well as your countrymen.

I know that some of you objected to what you saw as my unnecessarily harsh analysis of Juan Martin del Potro's first day performance, repeatedly pointing out out that he had performed impressively in the Davis Cup semifinal, and on the tour, especially for a 20-year old at the tail end of a long, tiring, breakout season. All I can say is that in covering tennis, you sometimes take the short view, and sometimes the long. The short view is appropriate when the focus is a specific event, or even a match. In fact, at those times it's sometimes best to suspend your Big Picture instinct, because it can get in the way of understanding how and why something happened, and doing justice to either competitor's performance (or lack thereof)  on the day. The long view is best applied when the dust has settled and the smoke has cleared.

So my long view is that Argentina totally made a hash of this tie. And I'm going to be a little immodest in claiming that I had a feeling things might turn out this way. In everything I've written about the tie, one of the prominent themes was the pressure that would be brought to bear on Argentina, and while del Potro made great strides this year in establishing himself as a top player, I wouldn't say that the squad as a group could have been called a tough lot, seasoned and mentally fit for the task they faced, prepared to pull together as a unit to get the job done no matter what it took. This was, after all, David Nalbandian's squad, and how often have we applied those kinds of adjectives to him?

Okay, Nalbandian is hurting today; there's no good reason to pile on any more than necessary. And let's remember that he played a terrific first match. But the backstory on Nalbandian here isn't real pretty. Numerous reports (including this one from our own correspondent in Mar del Plata) suggested that leading up to and during the tie, Nalbandian behaved less like a popular and inspirational captain (say, an Andy Roddick) than a prima donna who sometimes appeared to see this tie more as the vehicle for his personal glory and as a line-item in his legacy. If you're looking for a scapegoat, you've come to the right place.

Various sources had Nalbandian politicking (for personal reasons) with unusual fervor for a site close to Cordoba (his efforts came to naught), and micro-managing the choice and installation of surface in a way that was less about the team's chances than his own; of course, you could argue that what was in Nalbandian's best interest was also in the team's best interest,  but there are ways to make the confluence-of-interests more appealing for all concerned. The really critical question is the degree to which the rest of the Argentina squad saw this final not as Nalbandian's moment, but their collective moment. The evidence suggests that the answer is, not very much.

Nalby This became an especially important question as the summer rolled on and del Potro emerged as Argentina's best day-to-day player. In a way, Argentina's bid to win its first Davis Cup bid may have been undone rather than enhanced by the shake-up in the national rankings. For Del Potro, not Nalbandian, may have been the key figure in this tie, and his performance on Day One was the tipping point in all that came later. My feeling is that del Potro was insufficiently motivated, and perhaps unable to become inspired by what at times might have looked more like a Nalbandian coronation than a team effort by Argentina to capture the Davis Cup. We're dealing in intangibles here; I'll be the first to acknowledge it. But that doesn't make the themes and issues less real.  The alleged locker room dissension and scuffle following the doubles on Sunday was reported by too many sources for me to discount it's veracity (despite the denials issued by the Argentine camp). If this was indeed Nalbandian's team, he showed remarkably poor leadership.

Some comment posters over the past few days noted that I've shown a historic antipathy to Argentine players in general, and I have to admit that it's true - and the events this weekend showed partly why I feel that way, and why I think it's justified.

I've had a lot of respect for numerous players from Argentina over the years, starting with Guillermo Vilas and Jose Luis Clerc. I had a big falling out with Vilas (which was subsequently repaired) when I felt that his suspension for taking an under-the-table payment from a tournament in Rotterdam was justified. That's a long and complicated story, but if you all want me to tell it, maybe someday I will. Clerc and I had smooth sailing all the way, and we still chew the fat a little when I bump into him at this or that tournament.

Overall, though, the Argentines have a seeming inability to function as team players, and they seem to spend a little too much time jealously guarding their respective turf  (not that this is exclusively an Argentine problem, as John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors amply demonstrated in their own Davis Cup adventures). Vilas and Clerc, for example, were both great guys, but they were too competitive with each other in trival ways and a little too caught up in jockeying for position relative to each other on the home front. It's one of the main reasons that they, both Top Five players on clay at one time, couldn't set aside what rivalry they naturally felt to bring home a Davis Cup. That's the real tradition in Argentina, for better or worse: bickering and in-fighting that ruins the ideal Davis Cup spirit.

By contrast, Spain was practically forced to become a better team, and therefore one more likely to be inspired to overachieve, by the absence of its own star, Rafael Nadal. But remember that Nadal is much loved by his peers, and in a curious way his absence was inspirational in a different way. It probably made the Spanish players more determined to win - to do it partly for their missing icon, and partly to show that they could carry the load without him. This all gets pretty murky, psychologically; it's easy to be a Monday morning quarterback.

But if you want a more quantifiable analysis, I'd say that Lopez did all the anyone could ask, and that Nalbandian did not. Sure, Nalbandian ripped through his opening singles. But if he was as much the focal point of Argentina's effort as appears to be the case, he should have found a way to lead Argentina to a doubles win. Oh, I know the objections you could raise on the score, but I don't buy into them. You want to be the hero, you find a way to get it done. End of story.

You also have to wonder if there isn't a larger lesson to be learned here. Tennis is too difficult a game, and too dependent on confidence and fitness, for any player to take shortcuts, or make assumptions - and that's especially true of situations over which he doesn't have total control (like you have in Davis Cup). If you want to tread water as a player, playing the ranking system and tournament structure in a way that suits your desires and needs, you're asking for trouble. Any player that doesn't take an utterly professional approach to his game, and try equally hard even when he isn't feeling terrible motivated or inspired, is asking for trouble. And don't think that his peers and rivals aren't aware of it.

Tennis is still an unscripted venture, and attempts to write and impose the narrative often go wildly awry (just look at Ivan Lendl's inability to win Wimbledon in spite of his willingness to sacrifice his chances Roland Garros, or the fact that Pete Sampras had his worst tournaments in Paris in the years when he most targeted it).But unlike Lendl and Sampras, Nalbandian was not a proven champion and hard worker taking a calculated risk with a conscious shift of priorities. It seemed more like he generally let things slide and opportunistically waited for his chance to strike it rich (in terms of reputation and legacy) with a Davis Cup victory, like a guy betting all of his chips on one spin of the roulette wheel.

In a way, you have to feel for the guy; he bet red and the spin came up black. But unlike the irrationally hopeful gambler, Nalbandian might have done more - perhaps a lot more, in subtle ways - to affect where that ball came to rest. The older I get, the more convinced I am that the truth always comes out, although I'm careful about embracing it as such, and there's certainly some room for debate over just what that truth means. The one I'll take, this time around, is the one uttered by the defeated Argentina captain, Alberto Mancini:

Nadal not coming made [the Spanish team] even more of a unit, more together. We have to learn a lot about this to someday win the Davis Cup.

In other words, this was Nalbandian's team alright, and given what we know about Nalbandian, the result isn't so surprising.

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Posted by linex 11/26/2008 at 10:13 AM

Do not worry Vie.

I guess that Argentina did not deserve to win the Cup now, I agree with Pete that things happen for a reason, and that the outcome has logical explanations and mistakes that led to it.

Argentina had to wait from 1930 until 1978 when they organized a world cup at home to win the world cup, even though the had more talented players than Uruguay that won it as early as in 1930. But it was in 1986 when they first won it unquestionably, because rumours says that in 1978 some matches were arranged for that outcome.

Spain had to wait until 2008 to win the Eurocup ...

When there is talent and good work the results sooner or later arrive.

I agree that we lost a good chance to win it, what I think is horrible for the players, the teamm, and the argentine press and public is this gossip center that was built since the defeat became a possibility.

Posted by tina 11/26/2008 at 10:31 AM

Well, I've missed a lot of drama on here while I took a two-day sabbatical.

I wouldn't be me, or at least the TW "me", if I didn't point out how formidable an opponent Serbia will be for Spain. Someone well above mentioned Tipsarevic as the 2 player behind, of course, Djokovic. Don't forget Zimonjic in the doubles! Viktor Troicki as a back-up isn't chopped liver, either.

Either FeLo or Nalby was going to emerge as the "Ljubicic" of this final - the stalwart who contributed all season long. And Fernando got to be the SuperMario, as the Cup was won on his racket.

Jose Luis Clerc - wow. Somehow my best friend and I ended up in the locker room at Longwood in the 70s, and though we were only 14, Clerc and Victor Pecci shamelessly flirted with us. Indeed, they were the trouble-makers who brought us into the locker room. Alas, Vilas wasn't playing at Longwood that year. But we didn't stop giggling for days....

Posted by Vie 11/26/2008 at 10:41 AM

linex, some positives from this loss (hehe):

for Nalby - good thing it was not in Cordoba
for delPo - good he went to TMC
for Mancini - haze in the gossip centers

They'll win DC yet.

Posted by 11/26/2008 at 10:47 AM

Bottom line: Argentina had only one good player (Nalbandian). Spain had three (Ferrer, Lopez and Verdasco), from whom it used the best two on that weekend (Lopez and Verdasco) to win the tie. Argentina, a one-man show, was doomed the moment Del Potro showed up out of shape.

Posted by linex 11/26/2008 at 10:47 AM

In many have the view that Mancini lack character and that someone had to step up to make decisions. That Martin Jaite (Nalbandinan´s coach) was even available during Juanma´s match giving directions to help Luli to help Juanma win.

That everyone realized beforehand when seeing that Juan did not play his matches in China totally fit that there was a risk that he could only play one match. That David warned Mancini about this.

That David even thought in withdrawing from the Paris Final because he had an injury in his foot and was afraid to risk his body for Davis Cup. That Jaite told him "until when will you sacrifice your career for Davis cup, just play this final and worry about your ranking points as others do".

Posted by 11/26/2008 at 11:42 AM

"Faulting Nalbandian for not being able to pull off a very improbably upset is utterly ridiculous."

It wasn't an improbable upset - the argentines were two points away from taking a 2-1 sets lead, but nalbandian choked in the third set tiebreaker. the spaniards got a huge gift.

Posted by matheo 11/26/2008 at 11:43 AM

Nalbandian is not a blame as is no one. Like spain won as a team argentina also lost like one.

Posted by Sher 11/26/2008 at 12:27 PM

Nancy, I understand. I disagree with any statement that puts the entire Davis Cup failure at the feet of Nalbandian. His portion is just slightly bigger than most except the captain of the team, because of his status and visibility. I guess the blame game was not what I perceived to be the argument in the post in the first place. I was looking at it more as a "what could they all improve on, next time" exercise. I am betting you if this was Roger we were discussing I would have the same reaction as you though.

Posted by † Hallelujah 11/26/2008 at 01:03 PM

Argentina's loss is Peter Bodo's fault. We're dealing in intangibles here, but bare with me.

Peter was sending so much bad karma in Nalbandian's direction, even though Nalbie was able to fend off Peter's Astral Assaults, they were inadvertently deflected onto his less psychically endowed teammates - who succumbed under Peter's relentless Karmic pressure.

Posted by Game,Set,Match... 11/27/2008 at 02:16 AM

Nalbandian was definitely not single-handidly responsible for Argentina's defeat, but he is definitely not innocent. He can play brilliant tennis, that just wasn't it. But they did lose as a team and for anyone to stick the blame on Nalbandian is ridiculous.

Posted by Aussie Angel (Willy please play better in 2009 so you can get back on the DC team) 11/27/2008 at 02:34 AM

Nancy - I agree with your post except for the part about a team having an inspirational leader. For that part I do not agree. Every great team has a leader who they can turn too apart from their captain.

If you follow team sports there is a captain who when they are on the field, guides, encourages and supoorts them when it is needed. To say that Marcini is the captain and should do all this is not fair. Players look to other players for what I have just mentioned.

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