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Steve Flink: Davis Cup Musings

9/21/2008 4:30:00 AM

by Steve Flink

This past weekend, sports fans could not go wrong. Professional football was front and center for many observers. Baseball was nearing the end of a long season as the New York Yankees played their final game in the "old" Yankee Stadium, fittingly defeating the Baltimore Orioles under the lights in that storied park as their loyal followers said an emotional goodbye. Others who closely monitor the world of sports were caught up in the Ryder Cup golf, placing that team competition at the top of their entertainment universe on television.

For me, however, and I hope for you as well, the weekend revolved largely around the two Davis Cup semifinals. Argentina, led by the ever improving Juan Martin Del Potro, played host to Russia in Buenos Aires, and won that showdown 3-2. Over in Madrid, a Spanish contingent, ignited by the one and only Rafael Nadal, cut down the United States 4-1. Both semifinal confrontations featured players at and near the top of the world rankings. Not only was the world No. 1 Nadal in action, but he was joined by world No. 5 David Ferrer. For the U.S., world No. 8 Andy Roddick made the long journey to play in Spain. World No. 6 Nikolay Davydenko represented Russia, while No. 7 David Nalbandian was there for Argentina along with No. 13 Del Potro.

So there was more than enough talent to go around in each of the Davis Cup semifinals. Let's start with the Spain-U.S. battle. The Americans surely knew how tough it would be for them to succeed on the red clay in Madrid. Nadal is virtually unbeatable on that surface, and was bound to put two points on the board for his nation. That meant there was no U.S. margin for error. They had to win the doubles, and take the remaining two singles matches. That was asking too much of the defending Davis Cup champions.

And yet, the U.S. put up a highly respectable fight. Sam Querrey, making his Cup debut as a replacement for James Blake, played superbly against Nadal in the opening match. The altitude in Madrid--- combined with a bright blue sky and considerable heat--- speeded up the conditions and enabled Querrey to impose himself on a seemingly rusty and unsettled Nadal. Querrey held serve all the way through the opening set and then played a solid tie-break. Surprisingly, it was Nadal who cracked in that sequence, throwing in a double fault at 4-5 in "the breaker" that cost him dearly.

Querrey took that set, and then broke Nadal in the opening game of the second set. He held on for 2-0, briefly raising the hopes of his supporters that he might pull off one of the great upsets in Davis Cup history. It was not to be. Nadal never lost his serve again and gradually elevated his game to win 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-3, 6-4. He picked Querrey apart from the baseline and, to a large degree, found his range. But Querrey was terrific in many ways. For the most part, he served quite well, cracked his forehand with extraordinary depth and control, and displayed excellent touch on the low forehand volley. He had nothing to be ashamed of in losing that contest.

Next up was Roddick against Ferrer. That was the best match of the weekend in either Davis Cup semifinal. Roddick competed with customary vigor and pride, battling ferociously through five sets against a player who is much more self assured on clay courts. Roddick dropped the first set in a tie-break but rolled through the next two sets. He exploited the relatively fast clay court conditions to the hilt. But Ferrer, buoyed by vociferous crowd support, struck back commandingly to take the fourth set and then broke for a 2-1, fifth set lead.

Roddick was not deflated. He broke back for 2-2, and held on confidently in his next four service games. Twice, at 4-5 and 5-6, Ferrer served to save the match. But he did not allow Roddick a single point in either of those critical games, and then came through 7-6 (5), 2-6, 1-6, 6-4, 8-6. Ferrer had not served well throughout much of that match, but when it mattered most his serve did not let him down. Roddick played a fine match and could well have won, but Ferrer was the marginally better player on the day.

Mike Bryan and Mardy Fish did a great job to win the doubles over the all-lefty tandem of Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4. Fish was returning beautifully from the deuce court and Mike Bryan was excellent in the advantage court. They led two sets to one and were up 4-2 in the fourth, only to lose four straight games. But they bounced back admirably in the fifth, and deserved their triumph. Through it all, they exposed Verdasco's vulnerability on serve. Verdasco stayed back far too often on first and second serves, and the Americans did not let him get away with it.

And so the stage was set for the marquee match-up between Nadal and Roddick, who had to wait for more than an hour-and-a-half for the rain to stop before they could start their match. Perhaps that slowed things down just enough to benefit Nadal. Whether or not that was true, Nadal was crackling with intensity from the outset and was at his absolute best. He dissected Roddick 6-4, 6-0, 6-4 with a consummate display of his clay court genius. This was not the U.S. Open Nadal who seldom reached a physical or emotional peak; instead, the essential Nadal showed up, and Roddick never really had a chance.

Serving for the first set at 5-4, Nadal fell behind 15-40, but responded with typical pugnacity. After Roddick misfired off the forehand on the first break point, Nadal rolled a two-hander deep crosscourt to set up a devastating forehand winner. Then he made a forehand passing shot winner, and served an ace wide to the backhand. And just like that, the set belonged to Nadal. In racing to a 5-0 second set lead, Nadal swept 20 of 25 points, releasing every single shot in his arsenal as Roddick tried in vain to attack. The way I saw it, Roddick needed to mix it up more. He started serving-and-volleying on almost every point, and Nadal was answering with returns and passing shots that were sometimes out of this world.

Roddick competed well in the third set and fought off five match points when he served at 3-5, but Nadal calmly held at love to finish off an immaculate piece of business and clinch victory for Spain over the U.S. He could hardly have played any better.

As for Argentina, they started convincingly against Russia. Nalbandian stopped Igor Andreev in straight sets before Del Potro removed Davydenko 6-1, 6-4, 6-2. Then Igor Kunitsyn and Dmitry Tursunov held back Nalbandian and Guillermo Canas 6-2, 6-1, 6-7 (9), 3-6, 8-6. It was 2-1 for Argentina. Now Nalbandian took on Davydenko. They split sets before travelling to a third set tie-break. Davydenko took that sequence to move out in front by two sets to one, and never looked back, winning 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (2), 6-0. Is there anyone in the upper levels of the game more enigmatic than Nalbandian? Here he was, playing at home, having a chance to close the deal for his nation with a win over Davydenko, who can be a perplexing competitor himself. But Nalbandian faded away in that fourth set. It was not exactly a shining competitive moment in the career of a player who could be so much better than he is.

Fortunately for Nalbandian, the sturdy Del Potro was there to pick up the pieces and lift Argentina into the final round. Del Potro grinded out a 6-4, 6-2, 6-1 win over Andreev. Until 2-2 in the second set, it was a tight and tough match; thereafter, Del Potro moved to another level. He was just too good. He has now emerged victorious in 25 of his last 26 matches. Del Potro's stature grows with each and every passing day.

Spain and Argentina will meet indoors in late November. That will be a final round I will watch with immense interest. It is a wise move for Argentina to not play Spain on clay. They will make it tougher for Nadal to record two singles victories. Nalbandian is arguably a better player on hard courts than he is on clay, and Del Potro definitely prefers a faster court over red clay. To say the least, it will be very intriguing to see how it all plays out.

By then, Del Potro will almost surely have moved past Nalbandian to No. 1 in his nation. Nalbandian has a ton of points to protect from winning the Masters Series titles a year ago in Madrid and Paris, where he twice defeated Federer, twice toppled Nadal, and once beat Djokovic. That was a golden stretch for Nalbandian, but he has not been the same player in 2008. But if Del Potro is indeed the No. 1 player for Argentina, he would not play Nadal until the final day. That would mean Nadal would square off against Nalbandian on opening day.

If that happens, perhaps Nalbandian would have a better chance against Nadal than he would if the Cup was really on the line the last day. Nalbandian might feel less of a burden confronting Nadal in that situation. But Argentina might prefer having Del Potro get a crack at Nadal on opening day. Be that as it may, Nadal will be primed for his last big goal of 2008. He has already captured two Grand Slam titles this season, and garnered a gold medal for Spain at Beijing. Furthermore, he will almost surely arrive in Argentina with the year-end No. 1 world ranking in his possession.

Make no mistake about it: no matter what Del Potro or Nalbandian have in mind, Nadal will be in no mood to lose during the Davis Cup Final. But he will need some help from his teammates if Spain is going to come away with a triumph, and I have my doubts about just how much backing Nadal will get.

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