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Coming Home 12/04/2011 - 7:20 PM

201112041122409397166-p2@stats_comSEVILLE, Spain—It felt like a Grand Slam final, not just the star-studded fourth rubber, but the whole tie. Like Centre Court on the last day of Wimbledon, there wasn’t an empty seat where fans could see the action in the massive, indoor/outdoor Estadio Olimpico on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. But you’d be forgiven for thinking the passionate crowd was watching Real Madrid play Boca Juniors instead of Spain’s dynastic, deep squad against the hard-luck Argentineans, seeking their first Davis Cup after three prior failures.

It’s now four such shortcomings, after Juan Martin del Potro stumbled late in the fourth set Sunday against Rafael Nadal. The 23-year-old looked as if he lost a major final afterward, just like he did two days earlier against David Ferrer, who reacted like he won his first. And Nadal, owner of 10 Slams? Covered in clay after a celebratory collapse usually saved for Roland Garros, Rafa didn’t hide the fact that this was a necessary salve to cap a damaging season. “Today is one of the most emotional days of my career,” said Nadal. “After such a difficult year, this was a spectacular finale to the season. To win a final this way is very special.”

The source of Nadal’s frustration is Novak Djokovic, twice a conqueror on dirt in 2011, among other surfaces. With a chance to claim the Cup for his country, Nadal faced a taller version of the Serb in the first set—del Potro’s backhands were Djokovic-esque, the same punishing strikes that negated the Spaniard’s built-in clay-court advantage in the Madrid and Rome finals. Rafa’s forehand spin didn’t faze del Potro, either, recalling another recent Nadal nemesis and tower of power, Robin Soderling.

Argentina trailed the tie 2-1, but the pressure was squarely on Nadal. It came from the other side of the net; from the supporters treating this match like a local soccer derby (both sides spoke the same language, after all); from inside, after a season of struggle; and from his teammates watching courtside. Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez, who fell in doubles, didn’t want to be one of the reasons Spain blew a 2-0 lead, and Ferrer, taxed from 11 months of play and a five-hour war on Friday, surely felt more comfortable on the sideline than the baseline.

Nadal’s eventual win, his second of the series, reminded us that as much as Davis Cup stresses the team, tennis itself rarely strays from its individualistic nature. Argentine captain Tito Vasquez’s strategy revolved around one man, Nadal, although we’ll never know what else he had in mind. Would David Nalbandian have faced Ferrer in the fifth rubber, or would he have stayed with the original plan of Juan Monaco? The decision would have taken form into account—and Nalbandian looked particularly sharp alongside Eduardo Schwank in Saturday’s doubles win—but simply put, Davis Cup tactics are about match-ups. They have to be, when a tie consists of just five matches and one player can earn more than half the total points required for victory.

But although an individual can greatly influence the outcome, the Davis Cup isn’t awarded to a single man. The winner is Spain, now for the third time in the last four years. During this run, three Spaniards have earned the Cup-winning point: Verdasco in 2008 (in Argentina), Lopez and Verdasco (in doubles) in 2009, and Nadal in 2011. “Today it was my turn to decide a final,” said Nadal at the post-match press conference. “I think we have deserved it.”

It’s an incredible statistic, a testament to the country’s abundance of athletic riches (Yannick Noah wasn’t available for comment) and dedication to the competition. The greedy question is, will Ferrer get his chance to clinch the Cup next year? The sensible question is, how long can this last? Who knows, but another defense will be difficult. Ferrer all but confirmed he’s done with Davis Cup, perhaps realizing that his window of winning tennis’ biggest singles titles is closing. “At the end of the day, I have been here for many years,” said Ferrer. “Personally we all look for our own calendar.”

Nadal, who only had the opportunity to eliminate Argentina thanks to Ferrer’s valiant effort on Friday, didn’t leave any doubt of his intentions. With a “very complex year” coming up, he won’t suit up for Spain in Davis Cup, instead focusing his patriotic efforts on the London Olympics. “Thank God Spain has a good level of players,” said Nadal, “and there are many good players that will replace us that play really high-level tennis.”

Removing Nadal and Ferrer from the equation would certainly improve Argentina’s chances of ending its ignominious streak, but there were positives to take away from its latest last-round loss—a definite turnaround from the setback to Spain in the 2008 final, despite an identical score—particularly the play of del Potro. If he remains healthy, it’s very easy to see him returning to the ATP’s A-list in 2012. But the Argentine understandably thought nothing of that after yet another crushing defeat. “I have just lost the final,” said del Potro. “The next year, it’s a long way away.”

Regardless of Rafa’s future, he came full circle by sealing Spain’s triumph in Seville, the city where he captured his first Davis Cup in 2004. He wore his sleeves on his knees back then, was unknown to all but hardcore U.S. tennis fans, and was a boy playing—and winning—a man’s game. Advertisements around Seville show this younger Nadal leaping into the air in celebration, looking not much older than countless children yelling his name in the stands today.

Once again, Seville watched Rafa steal the show. The kid is now a king—of clay; he hasn’t lost more than two matches on the surface in a year since 2004—and he defended his territory to more rousing ovations. Nadal is not all of Spain, but as Spanish captain Albert Costa aptly put it, “Rafa is Rafa”—he’s unquestionably the biggest part of the team. Argentina arguably put up a greater challenge to Nadal and Spain than expected, but its Davis Cup dreams are still just that, dreams. “We prepared for a very tough tie,” said Nalbandian, sitting next to a defeated del Potro at the presser. “Sometimes, unfortunately, the opponent is better and that’s the way it is.”

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Del Potro's Final Shot 12/03/2011 - 8:45 PM

JkSEVILLE, Spain—After witnessing Novak Djokovic’s transformation following his heroics in last year’s Davis Cup final, I came to this year’s finale wondering if anyone could do something similar. It would have to be someone with enough untapped potential as Djokovic, someone concluding a rather ho-hum year, but someone who could genuinely challenge the penthouse of the tour next year. Guess who? It’s not too difficult, I’ll admit—the player I’ve had my eye on all along is Juan Martin del Potro.

The Argentine has an opportunity to make us reassess his standing in the sport on Sunday, when he’ll play Rafael Nadal in his country’s second consecutive must-win match. Djokovic was in a similar position last year; with Serbia trailing France 2-1, he forced a fifth rubber with a clinical victory over Gael Monfils. Viktor Troicki sealed the title with a straight-sets triumph, completing an unlikely comeback.

It would be a far more improbable rally should Argentina win the last three matches in Seville, but an incredible amount of pressure would shift to Spain’s last singles player (presumably David Ferrer) should a two-point lead vanish. There’s one big problem, of course: del Potro must first defeat Nadal on clay, where the world No. 2 is generally unbeatable and just trounced Juan Monaco in the final’s opening match.

Considering del Potro endured nearly five hours of tennis in his Friday loss, what hope does Argentina have? For one, they should pray that Nadal isn’t in top physical shape himself. He didn’t seem any worse for wear against Monaco, but Argentine reporter Jorge Viale altered me of a South American press report saying Nadal received an injection in his right knee before his match, and that Spanish captain Albert Costa told Fernando Verdasco to be ready for opening singles duty (on Friday), if necessary.

But Nadal looked pretty good on Friday, didn’t he? So it’s clearly a stretch, but it’s going to take something special—divine, possibly—to prevent Nadal from winning tomorrow. Even the 2012 storylines are in Rafa’s favor: Djokovic rules the Slams, but Roger Federer and Nadal take the fall by winning the World Tour Finals and Davis Cup!

But what if a big off-season story was about del Potro, the Barbarous Barber of Seville who scalped Rafa—would it signal his return to the form that made him U.S. Open champion in 2009, and the most legitimate threat to the ATP’s Top 4 in years?

It’s a stretch, especially that Barbarous Barber part.

Realistically, del Potro will need to play even better than he did in the second and third sets against Ferrer to beat Nadal, and even that may not be close to enough. His serve must be as big a weapon as his forehand, and he’ll need to be in the right frame of mind from beginning to end—if Nadal gets an early lead, that spells trouble, but so is failing to close out a match, as del Potro demonstrated in his five-set loss to Ferrer.

The Tower of Tandil must impose his game on Nadal, control the rallies and be both aggressive and accurate. On his best day, that’s a tough ask; against Rafa on clay, that’s one of tennis’ ultimate tests. Plus, there’s the fatigue factor. “He must surely be tired,” Argentine captain Tito Vasquez admitted. “But I’m sure that with the time in between yesterday and tomorrow, he will be ready for the challenge.”

The problem with that statement is, we can say the same thing about Nadal. “For us to get to the last rubber we need to win the fourth point,” said Vasquez, “which means winning Rafael Nadal, which is not that simple.”

The Pick: Nadal in three sets.

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Nighttime Notes 12/02/2011 - 9:39 PM

Wrap2SEVILLE, Spain—While there's still a match to preview, let's wrap up a perfect day for Spain with some thoughts on the Davis Cup final:

—The playing surface is important, but so are the conditions, and it got downright cold in Seville during the Ferrer-del Potro match. I believe it was near the low 50s, but I was told that the shape of the stadium (open roof in the middle, but cover over the seats) had something to do with the chilly feeling. The players didn't seem affected, but you didn't have to look far to find a coat fit for wintertime in the crowd.

—Speaking of the stadium, walking around the Estadio Olimpico made me feel for all the countries and cities that are essentially forced to build huge venues in order to entice major athletic events to come their way. I mentioned earlier that Seville twice bid for the Olympics, with this massive edifice as a selling point. "The Olympic Stadium in this southern Spanish city was built on a dream," a 1999 AP wire story begins. But that dream was never realized, and neither of Seville's major soccer teams—two logical occupants—call the stadium home today. From what I can tell, it's largely unused, and its sagging condition doesn't show well. At least it's been a great venue for tennis, and it looks like Spain will be able to celebrate something here in the coming days, like it did in 2004.

—I read a great line from one of the Bryan brothers about the unveiling of Rafa seven years ago:

It's funny to think that we were all relieved when Ferrero was swapped out of the singles for Nadal! Didn't quite know that he was gonna become such a ruthless clay juggernaut.

—When Nadal plays for Spain, he usually wins. This might be asking a lot for someone who so openly complains about the crammed schedule, but do you think he’ll try for Olympic doubles gold? Nadal has plenty of good options amongst his teammates, plus there’s occasional doubles partner and good friend Marc Lopez. Has anyone ever won the Davis Cup, Olympic singles gold and doubles gold?

—Even if this tie ends in two days, tennis is lucky to have a Davis Cup final featuring two incredibly passionate fan bases. Argentina’s support is amazing; its blue-and-white clothed fans travel well and seem to be as loud as the Spanish, despite a sizable numbers disadvantage. Both speak the same language, which might explain why there are so many Argentine supporters here, and it makes for quite a scene as they try to one-up one another. But after one game, obviously featuring a winner and loser, the entire crowd belted out Ole!, Ole! Ole! Ole! at once, teeming the air with noise.

The instant next ball was to be served, you could hear a pin drop. The drummers and horn-blowers, who seemingly stop their sounds in unison around the arena, have some impeccable timing. And then, seconds later, you couldn't hear yourself think again.

—Del Potro is an emotional young man, and it looked like he was still shaking the effects of a good cry as he sat in his mandated press conference, unable to hide a rosy face. When Ferrer entered the room a few minutes later, an assemblage of reporters gave him a round of applause.

—In a matter of moments, I went from pondering my introduction to the “del Potro d. Ferrer” Racquet Reaction—“Clear your Sunday morning plans. Rafael Nadal will either be playing to win the Davis Cup for Spain, or to keep Spain from being eliminated in an all-time upset” —to the realization that the potentially epic Nadal-del Potro match may not happen at all. If it does, it will be well-deserved for the Argentines, and the atmosphere will be indescribably good.

—About tomorrow’s doubles: Eduardo Schwank is unbeaten on clay in doubles, though he’s only played two such matches, and each was contested in Buenos Aires. But both occurred this year, both were straight-sets wins, and both were with old partner Juan Ignacio Chela. Tomorrow, Schwank teams with David Nalbandian—a Rafa-like 17-2 lifetime on clay in Davis Cup; 7-1 in doubles matches—in a must-win, and they’ll need a huge effort. The last time we saw Verdasco and Lopez team together was in September, in Cordoba, where they were ambushed by singles star Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and doubles star Michael Llodra, 6-1, 6-2, 6-0.

Challenging the Lopez backhand seems a no-brainer, but Argentina must also return well to try and reduce the number of free points off Lopez’s serve. Meek returns work against him in singles, but not in doubles, where Verdasco will simply swat a winner at net. In form almost all year, Lopez might be the key to the entire match, even though Nalbandian is the central figure of discussion. If he can lead his side to Sunday, would Tito Vazquez consider subbing him in for del Potro in the Nadal match?

But let's take this one step at a time, as the Argentines must do. Unfortunately for them and their traveling circus, I think their next step will be their last one.

The Pick: Spain in four sets.

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Seen and Heard: Estadio Olimpico de Sevilla 12/02/2011 - 8:28 AM

SEVILLE, Spain—I've obtained my credentials, found the press room and acquired a ticket. Not without some struggle, of course, since I know about 10 words of Spanish. Thankfully, food speaks a universal language.

Before the first match gets underway, here's a quick tour of the site:

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The press room. Since my last Davis Cup tie, in 2008, I've sat in a lot of them, but these somewhat makeshift reporting rooms—oftentimes, Davis and Fed Cup ties aren't played in tennis-specific venues—are always a welcome sight. No frills, but ample space, a good cross-section of journalists and, as always, a fine meal, courtesy of the ITF.

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The interview room, adjacent to the press room. Not expecting to hear much English considering the two teams.

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Upon exiting the press area, I arrive right inside the unused half of the Estadio Olimpico. It was opened in 1999 and used for Seville's failed 2004 and 2008 Olympic bids, and has since hosted some important soccer matches. But tennis fans probably remember it as the first place they watched Rafael Nadal, during the 2004 Davis Cup final (won by Spain over the United States). I did, at college, and later that day imitated Rafa's uppercut fist-pumps after winning a game of ping-pong.

Juan Martin del Potro, practicing before his match later this afternoon.

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I'm near Madrid's Caja Magica, but this is simply the barrier between the aforementioned practice session between del Potro and Juan Ignaco Chela.

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A walkway to the stands takes me over the 'field' part of the track and field area.

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A look behind the temporary court. Any Syracuse fans out there? This is very Carrier Dome-esque.

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Even journalists get caught up in the excitement of the competition. Here, two Argentine reporters can't help but be impressed by their compatriot's choice of dress.

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Another look at the fans, many of them singing and chanting an hour before the first ball is struck.

Want to hear them? I got an earful making my way to the press seats—check this out.

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And here's the court, in full view. Heading there now, and I'll be back with a Racquet Reaction of Nadal v. Monaco shortly after it concludes.

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Friday Fortune-Telling 12/01/2011 - 7:28 PM

201112010728269162542-p2@stats_comSEVILLE, Spain—Two surprises today in Spain: The Argentines were awoken at 6:30 am for random drug tests, and team captain Tito Vasquez chose Juan Monaco for second singles instead of David Nalbandian. As all that was happening, I was in the air, but on the ground, Steve Tignor updated my preview with a fine one of his own. (And while you’re at it, check out Pete Bodo’s look at Argentina’s Davis Cup final failures.)

We can debate how the Nalbandian gambit might affect this weekend’s matches all we want, but there’s only two matches we know for certain: Tomorrow’s singles showdowns. So before we get to Sunday, let’s examine Friday’s rubbery goodness.

First Rubber: Rafael Nadal vs. Juan Monaco

TENNIS.com buddy Miguel Seabra and I got talking about the tie at tonight’s media welcome party, and when it came to discuss Monaco, the term “sacrificial lamb” was used. I agree with Miguel’s choice of words, and I don’t think it was the right decision for Argentina. Of all the times to catch Rafa on clay, this week could be one of the best, with the Spaniard suffering from a long season and London’s losses still fresh in mind. Nalbandian is far from a sure thing, but he has the ability to pull off a huge upset, something Argentina will probably require if they are to win their first Davis Cup. Instead, they’ll trot out Monaco, a fine player but a typical whipping boy for Nadal on dirt. Anything Argentina gets from Monaco tomorrow is gravy—think sets won, not a match win.

The Pick: Nadal in three sets.

Second Rubber: David Ferrer vs. Juan Martin del Potro

The big match. Assuming Nadal wins early, del Potro must have this one to keep Argentina’s title hopes realistic. As for Spain, they could hand the competition off to Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez with a potential season-ending Saturday, something that's gotta sound pretty good to Spain’s weary singles stars.

A question I have is: How quick will this indoor clay surface be? Ferrer would greatly benefit from some slow stuff, while del Potro will be looking for something slicker, which would assist his point-ending forehand and serve.

But at this point in the year, mental condition may trump court conditions: How bad do you want it? I actually give del Potro the edge here; he’s never won a Davis Cup and an upset of Spain would be an immense boost for 2012, when he aims to return to peak, 2009 form. However, after his recent pull-out in Paris with a shoulder injury, del Potro’s physical condition is a concern. It didn’t figure into much of today’s back-and-forth with the media, but things like this are almost always kept hidden.

It’s a close call, and it should be a close match.

The Pick: del Potro in four sets.

***

Back tomorrow with Racquet Reactions and a Friday wrap.

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