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Steve Flink: No Nadal, No Problem

11/24/2008 6:03:00 PM

by Steve Flink

They had established their supremacy as a tennis nation for the first time in 2000, capturing the esteemed Davis Cup with a final round triumph at home against Australia. They had come through once more in 2004 on their native soil, upending the United States in the championship round. But this time around, Spain celebrated a triumph of an even higher order, toppling the heavily favored Argentina in Mar del Plata, coming from behind in every one of their match victories, fighting valiantly to gain their success. In what must be regarded as their finest hour, the Spanish men defeated Argentina 3-1 this past weekend, and from where I sat in my living room, it was impossible not to be inspired by how admirably these players conducted themselves under trying circumstances. I haven't enjoyed watching a Davis Cup Final this much in a very long time.

When world No. 1 Rafael Nadal announced that tendinitis in his right knee would force him to skip the looming battle against Argentina, I thought that the occasion would be sorely diminished without this incomparably dynamic and highly charged competitor, and I figured Spain's quest for success was essentially at an end. I was fundamentally wrong on both counts, and could not be more delighted. The reason I feel that way is simple: Davis Cup is never better than at times like this. The magic of the competition comes fully into view, the players find an inner strength they did not know was there, and the fans are exposed to a side of the sport that is rarely displayed.

Let's reflect on precisely what happened in Argentina, and I will do my best to make sense of it all. David Nalbandian- the leader of his nation's contingent--- was close to the top of his game and in full command of his game during a 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 victory over David Ferrer in the opening match on a medium fast indoor hard court. Nalbandian, fresh from a second straight, first rate autumn indoor campaign on the ATP Tour, refused to allow Ferrer into the match. His ground game was relentlessly sharp and sound, his court sense nearly impeccable, and the issue was never in doubt. Poor Ferrer--- who lost a substantial amount of confidence over the second half of 2008--- never knew what hit him.

With Argentina out in front 1-0 as expected, Feliciano Lopez walked on court to face Juan Martin Del Potro carrying a huge burden. He knew full well that he absolutely had to find a way to stop his adversary if Spain was going to survive. They simply could not afford to go down 2-0, especially away from home. Del Potro had the luxury of knowing he was not in the same dire predicament as Lopez, and that was evident in the early stages of an absorbing contest.

Del Potro managed to break the left-handed Lopez at love in the fifth game of the opening set as the Spaniard missed all but one first serve. The 20-year-old Argentine made that count and held serve all the way through that set, connecting with 76% of his first deliveries and releasing 7 aces in the process. And yet, he knew precisely what he was up against because Lopez was already imposing himself in a big way with his serve-and-volley and chip and charge tactics. Moreover, Lopez gradually realized that he could hold his own with the big hitting Del Potro by using the backhand slice to set up his often brilliant flat, inside-out forehand.

As the second set progressed, Lopez executed his game plan methodically and was controlling his service games with unshakable consistency. In six service games, he conceded only four points, pressuring Del Potro into mistakes with crisp volleys and excellent variation on his delivery. His low skidding slice serve wide was a nightmare for Del Potro to confront. Del Potro was disciplined and impressive on serve himself, and he held on by taking command from the baseline as much as possible. That second set went almost inevitably into a tie-break, and it was Lopez who seized the initiative quickly. A brilliant and unstoppable second serve down the "T" on the first point gave Lopez just the lift he needed.

Lopez raced to a 4-0 lead, and won that sequence 7-2 to reach one set all. That stellar performance in the tie-break altered not only the shape of that match, but of the entire weekend. Had Lopez slipped behind two sets to love, he would have been awfully hard pressed to recover and the crowd might well have buoyantly carried Del Potro to victory. Instead, Lopez had found his bearings, and the relatively quick indoor hard court was to his advantage. Once more in the third set, Del Potro had no answer to the aggressive, high percentage tactics of his wily 27-year-old opponent. There were no service breaks in the entire set, but again Lopez was more commanding, conceding only three points in his last five service games.

In the pivotal third set tie-break, Lopez nervously double faulted into the net to trail 4-2, but he rescued himself from that demanding situation by collecting five points in a row to win 7-4. Most impressive of all was how Lopez served it out from 5-4. He directed an excellent wide slice serve to the two-hander of Del Potro that the Argentine netted, and then the Spaniard went wide for an ace in the deuce court. He was jubilant as he moved ahead two sets to one. When Lopez broke Del Potro--- the first time in the match he had secured a service break--- for a 3-1 fourth set lead, the match seemed as good as over.

That was not quite the case. Del Potro broke back immediately to make it 3-2, but his momentary morale boost was no more than that. On the first point of the next game, Del Potro injured his groin running wide for a forehand. Del Potro needed treatment, and he was spent. Lopez marched on deservedly to a 4-6, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (4), 6-3 victory. Would it have been different if Del Potro had not injured himself in the fourth set? Not the way I saw it. Lopez had outplayed Del Potro, and the guess here is that he was going to win anyway.

The following day, Spain put the all lefty tandem of Lopez and Fernando Verdasco (who played the deuce court) against Nalbandian and the 32-year-old Agustin Calleri in the doubles match. This one was wildly unpredictable. The opening set was on serve until 5-5. Verdasco, who did a terrific job of making himself serve-and-volley persistently all through the contest, double faulted at break point down. Nalbandian then coolly held on from 0-40 in the twelfth game to give Argentina a one set lead. With the level of play remaining exceedingly high, the second set stayed on serve until Nalbandian was broken at 5-6. It was one set all.

With Lopez largely unerring on the serve-and-volley and Verdasco making spectacular returns, the Spanish duo took a 5-1, 40-30 lead in the third. Verdasco missed a routine forehand first volley long on set point, and was soon broken. Two games later, it was Lopez's turn to serve for the set, and he missed a fundamentally easy volley to lose that game. Argentina, buoyed by the superb returns and solid net play of Nalbandian and some excellent poaching from Calleri, made it all the way back to 5-5, then 6-6. Fittingly, the set was settled in a tie-break, and what ensued in that sequence was nothing short of startling.

The Argentine combination swept the first four points, and then extended their lead to 5-1 with Nalbandian serving. At that propitious moment, he double faulted. Lopez followed with an ace and a first serve that Nalbandian could not handle off the backhand. It was still 5-4 for Argentina with Calleri serving. Nalbandian poached, only to miss a high backhand volley. Then Verdasco unleashed a dazzling forehand topspin lob winner. Improbably, Spain was ahead 6-5. Verdasco made certain to get in behind his serve, made an excellent half-volley pickup, and Calleri was provoked into an error. Set to Spain, 7-5 in the tiebreak.

The deflated team from Argentina could hardly believe their plight. Both Nalbandian and Calleri were both broken as Spain built a 5-2 lead. Although Verdasco wasted a 40-15 double match point lead in the following game, it hardly mattered. Spain broke Nalbandian again to close it out 5-7, 7-5, 7-6 (5), 6-3. They were in front 2-1 heading into the final day, but the fact remained that their task remained daunting.

Since Del Potro had not sufficiently recuperated from his opening day injury, Jose Acasuso was put in as a substitute. Spain countered by removing David Ferrer, handing an arduous assignment over to Verdasco, who probably would have been a better choice all along. Both men were painfully apprehensive from the start of this encounter. Acasuso, who had represented his nation in a Cup Final before (bowing in the decisive match to Marat Safin in Moscow two years ago), was spraying his ground strokes disconcertingly off both sides, missing flagrantly over and over again.

Sensing his opponent's high anxiety, Verdasco, barely able to control his own nerves, managed to break for 4-2 in the opening set, and then held from break point down at 5-3 to close out that set. Abandoning his customary bold style from the baseline for a much more conservative plan, and not serving as big as he can, Verdasco was able to establish an edge by allowing Acasuso to self destruct. But Acasuso found his range for a while in the second set, and temporarily cast aside his inhibitions, earning free points on serve, exploiting his big forehand with regularity.

Now it was Verdasco's turn to get inordinately tight. He double faulted twice while losing his serve in the second game of the second set. Acasuso moved to 4-1, but then tension overwhelmed him again. Verdasco closed the gap to 4-3, only to lose his serve in the next game with an unforced mistake. But Acasuso was still not sure of himself. He wasted a 5-3 lead. They went to 6-6. It was tie-break time. Serving at 3-3, Verdasco made a bad miscalculation. Acasuso rolled an inside-out forehand that the Spaniard could easily run down, but he did not chase that shot, hoping the call would go his way. It did not. Acasuso promptly took the next three points to make it back to one set all.

Acasuso relaxed again, surging to 4-2 in the third. Verdasco struck back to 4-4, but timidly lost his serve in the ninth game before Acasuso closed out the set on his third set point with an ace. The valiant Acasuso was one set away from pulling his nation back even at two matches all, and giving Nalbandian a chance to close things out in the presumed fifth match against Lopez. But from 2-2 in the fourth set, Verdasco was stronger, fitter, and mentally more composed than his rival. Recognizing at last that his best play was to expose Acasuso's weaker and more vulnerable backhand wing after going too often inside out to the forehand side of his adversary, Verdasco won four of the last five games to run out the fourth, serving a love game at 5-3.

Acasuso needed to see the trainer before the fifth set for an ailing a stomach muscle, but I have my doubts that he could have contained Verdasco even if the injury had not struck. Verdasco was dictating frequently by now from the baseline, and Acasuso was partially crippled with his movement. He could still serve powerfully, but was severely limited from the back of the court. Verdasco lost only four points on his way to a 3-0, double service break final set lead. In the fourth game, he was twice down break point, but bailed himself out with a remarkable low forehand volley winner, and a trademark inside-out forehand winner.

The Argentine gamely held on at 0-4, but that was it. Verdasco--- calm, resolute, ready to take command--- finished off the victory 6-3, 6-7 (3), 4-6, 6-3, 6-1 in just under four hours. Spain was triumphant 3-1. There was no need for the last match. The issue had been resolved.

A case could be made that Argentina lost because they were hit hard by bad fortune. They were indeed unlucky that Del Potro, who had finished the year at No. 9 in the world, was already depleted by the end of a long season. There is some merit in that point of view. But the view here is that Spain was incredibly gritty and opportunistic. And let's face it: they were unlucky that Nadal was injured and could not represent them in the final.

To me, the larger story here is that two left-handers stepped in for the greatest left-hander of them all, and got the job done. Lopez and Verdasco each won a singles and joined forces to take the doubles. Lopez battled ferociously from a set down to win in four. Verdasco rallied with unmistakable tenacity from two sets to one down to win the decisive match over Acasuso. Meanwhile, these two extraordinary men fought from a set down and came perilously close to trailing two sets to one before securing their doubles triumph.

Spain won the hard and old fashioned way. They earned it.

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