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Steve Flink: The Start of a Spanish Dynasty?

12/7/2009 12:00:00 AM

by Steve Flink

As I have lamented many times in this space, the tennis season is entirely too long, and the players don’t  get nearly the recuperative time they need to put one year behind them and begin anew the following year in the right frame of mind. But close followers of the sport are the beneficiaries of the exhausting campaign that we have in this sport. For eleven months, the fans are never idle because there is always something of value to stir their imaginations.

At the very end of the year, the tennis world celebrates one of the great occasions in all of sports. At that time, the Davis Cup Final is held, a team champion is crowned, and the outstanding individuals who play for their countries are rewarded significantly for bonding in another competitive environment. This past weekend, Spain established itself as the first nation since Sweden in 1997-1998 to capture the revered Cup two years in a row. They were victorious for the fourth time since 2000. They defeated the Czech Republic 4-1 in the Final at Barcelona, thriving on the indoor clay, joining forces persuasively to gain a victory they richly deserved.

Fittingly, it was Rafael Nadal who put the wheels in motion for Spain, who drove them into the lead by taking the opening singles match in decisive fashion from Tomas Berdych. It was a victory sorely needed by Nadal. He had been mired in a difficult slump, having lost his last four matches without winning a set, including a string of three straight defeats in London at the Barclays ATP Tour World Championships. But all of those losses were indoors; now Nadal was back on his cherished clay, competing at home, ready to end his year on the best possible note.

At the outset against an uninhibited and free-wheeling Berdych, Nadal was uneasy, almost self conscious about his recent woes. He broke Berdych in the opening game of the match, but in the second game he revealed some insecurity. Twice, Nadal had game points to reach 2-0, and both times he made uncharacteristic unforced mistakes off his backhand side. Berdych sensed he was in with a chance, and the 6’5” 24-year-old began finding the corners off both ground stroke wings, rocking Nadal back on his heels, dominating most of the rallies.

What could have been an easy set turned got complicated.  At 2-3, Nadal was down 0-30, but he served an ace out wide to the forehand in the deuce court. Down 30-40 in the same game, Nadal aced Berdych down the T. He worked his way back to 3-3, but the struggle continued as Berdych kept setting the pace. At 4-5, Nadal was down 0-30, two points away from losing the opening set, two points away from making Berdych believe he might be able to beat the clay court master on his favorite surface. But Nadal responded forthrightly, ending a first class rally by using a backhand drop shot down the line to coax Berdych into a one-handed backhand into the net.

Nadal collected the next three points swiftly to reach 5-5, then broke Berdych in the following game with some of his old familiar persistence after a couple of deuces. On the penultimate point of that game, he answered a Berdych drop shot with a drop shot of his own. Realizing Berdych was only going to be able to scrape the ball back, Nadal was ideally positioned for a forehand volley winner into an open court. Berdych then drove a forehand just long, and Nadal was right where he wanted to be, serving for the set at 6-5. He got to 30-0 in the twelfth game with a commanding display of his craft, controlling that point thoroughly, winning it with a clean forehand winner down the line. Out of nowhere, he double faulted on the next point, but that was merely a blip on his radar screen. Nadal quickly took the next two points to win the set.

Now Nadal had restored his faith in himself, and he had denied Berdych what looked like a good opportunity. The Spaniard broke at love to start the second set, pounding his forehand relentlessly, setting the tempo regularly. He saved a break point in the following game, then broke again for 3-0, buoyed by a couple of astonishing forehand passing shots that only he could make. An ace down the T at 40-30 in the fourth game lifted Nadal to 4-0, and there was no stopping the Spaniard. He broke again for 5-0, and closed out the set with an ace in the following game.

Since his comeback in August, Nadal had seldom played this well. He broke for 1-0 in the third set, held for 2-0 with yet another forehand winner behind Berdych, and then broke Berdych at love. Down break point in that third game, a desperate Berdych served-and-volleyed, but Nadal was not thrown off stride in the least, rolling a forehand return at his opponent’s feet to force a half volley error. Nadal saved two break points and held for 4-0. He had captured no fewer than 13 games in a row, and the issue was settled.

Nadal triumphed 7-5, 6-0, 6-2, and never got broken after his opening service game in the match. Nadal pulled away inexorably, demoralizing Berdych in the process. It was just the kind of match Nadal wanted to play, particularly across the last couple of sets. His forehand was humming, he was giving nothing away, he was dictating as often as possible. Nadal was once more the essential Nadal, and it was a joy to watch him performing with so much panache.

With Spain out in front 1-0, David Ferrer took on Radek Stepanek. Many authorities questioned the selection of Ferrer over Fernando Verdasco for the No. 2 singles slot. Although the fleet-footed Ferrer was once No. 4 in the world, he currently stands at No. 17 and had played very little tennis over the autumn. Verdasco, of course, had qualified for London and was certainly match tough after hard fought three set losses to Roger Federer, Juan Martin Del Potro and Andy Murray. Verdasco is No. 9 in the world and he had a terrific 2009 campaign, his best year ever.

But I understood why Ferrer was chosen. He is awfully comfortable on clay courts, he was well rested, and Verdasco is more at home on hard courts and perhaps even on grass. Verdasco is an adventuresome player who likes a quicker court, while Ferrer is made in many ways to play on the dirt. Be that as it may, Ferrer was obliterated by a top of the line Stepanek over the first two sets. Stepanek may be happier himself in faster conditions, and his unconventional attacking game is well designed for other surfaces. Nevertheless, he plays surprisingly well on clay.

Stepanek was sublime for two sets against the hapless Ferrer. The 31-year-old from the Czech Republic--- a man who finished 2009 at No. 12 in the world--- was spectacularly effective at the outset, taking his two-handed backhand returns remarkably early, attacking freely behind them. He served-and-volleyed as if performing on a very fast court and his drop shot was causing Ferrer all kinds of problems. Stepanek swept through the first two sets unshakably. After the two players exchanged service breaks in the first two games of the match, Stepanek won five games in a row with calm authority.

In the second set, Stepanek soared to 4-0, lost two games in a row, and then took two straight games himself. With Ferrer serving at 2-5, 30-40, Stepanek cracked one of his patented flat forehands down the line to take the initiative. He won that point with a clean winner off the same flank crosscourt. Stepanek not only led two sets to love, but he had conceded only three games to a formidable adversary who supposedly held the home court advantage.

At last, Ferrer started finding his range off the ground, and did a better job of backing up his serve. He broke Stepanek for 2-1 in the third set, held for 3-1, and gave the fans their first reason for encouragement. Stepanek was undismayed, striking back to 3-3, looking as if he felt he could run out the match in straight sets. But Ferrer gathered himself, took the next two games for a 5-3 lead, and two games later served out the set with no hesitation. It was two sets to one. The battle was on.

In the fourth set, Ferrer found himself able to induce more and more errors from Stepanek, who has so little margin for error off his forehand side. Ferrer bolted to a 4-1, two service break lead. Although the Spaniard remained under pressure often on his own serve—he was broken in the sixth and eighth games---he still had just enough in reserve to close out that set. At 5-4, he held at love. At 40-0, he underlined his growing confidence with a magnificent running forehand passing shot winner down the line. From the darkness of a two sets to love deficit, a revitalized Ferrer had admirably reached a fifth set, and the stage was set for a gripping fifth set.

 At this stage, both players raised the level of their games simultaneously. In the opening game of the final set, Stepanek was fighting against a tide of momentum. It was a critical time for him to hold. Four times he was down break point, but he was steadfast in his convictions, and he stood his ground terrifically. Ferrer netted a routine backhand down the line on one of those break points, but that was his only glaring error. Stepanek held on for 1-0. Both men were obstinate on serve, knowing one key break could decide it all, realizing that the entire Spain-Czech Republic tie could hinge on the outcome of this crucial set. At 2-3, Ferrer survived a tense, two deuce game, but he was at a distinct disadvantage because he was always serving from behind, with no margin for error. At 3-4, Ferrer was behind 0-30 but he chased down two well executed drop shots and won both points with his daring responses to make it 30-30.

Stepanek then advanced to 30-40, standing only a point away from serving for the match. He attacked but Ferrer kept the passing shot too low and the score was deuce. Ferrer made his way back to 4-4, but he had more danger ahead. Serving to save the match at 4-5, Ferrer was two points from losing at 30-30. Ferrer sliced his serve wide to the forehand, clipped the line with his delivery, and Stepanek understandably missed a forehand return. Stepanek made it to deuce, but Ferrer caught him off guard with a superb first serve down the T. Stepanek reached deuce once more, and for the third time he was two points from a hard earned triumph. Ferrer took that point with a swing volley winner, and held courageously for 5-5 as Stepanek missed a backhand return.

Now Stepanek held confidently at love for 6-5, but Ferrer answered with a love game of his own. At 6-6, 30-40, Stepanek tried his trademark backhand drop shot off the return from Ferrer, but his shot went into the net. Ferrer buoyantly moved to 7-6. Ferrer sensed he was not going to let this moment pass him by. He moved to 30-0, sent out an ace down the T, and held at love to complete an uplifting 1-6, 2-6, 6-4, 6-4, 8-6 triumph. It was the second time in his career that he had struck back from two sets to love down against Stepanek. In 2007, Ferrer turned the tables on Stepanek from that dire predicament at the Australian Open.

So Spain had a commanding 2-0 lead, and they sent their trustworthy team of Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez--- an all lefty tandem--- out to face the  duo of Stepanek and Berdych. It was an absorbing contest to watch. Verdasco played his customary brand of doubles, staying back on first and second serves, relying on his crackling topspin forehand to thwart the net play of the opposition. Lopez did some excellent work in the forecourt, served-and-volleyed beautifully throughout the battle, and poached skillfully. Verdasco played the deuce court with Lopez conducting his return business from the Ad court.

On the other side of the net, Stepanek was the deuce court man, and the all-out attacking player coming in on serve unwaveringly. Berdych was more circumspect, mixing up the serve-and-volley along with staying back on serve, making some thundering two-handed backhand returns from his favorite Ad court side. The playing styles of all four competitors made for an engaging spectacle. In the first set, the Spaniards broke Berdych for a 3-1 as Verdasco crushed a forehand past Berdych down the alley for a winner.

But Verdasco, despite a 40-30 lead in the following game, did not hold for 4-1. He double faulted at 40-30. Two points later, down break point, he approached on a short forehand but rolled the ball long. The Czech duo reached 3-3 and the set stayed on serve through the next six games. A well played set would end appropriately in a tie-break.

Serving with a mini-break lead at 4-3 in the tie-break, Verdasco produced a very good first serve that Berdych could not handle on the forehand return, and then the lefty kicked his second serve with severe spin, making it impossible for Stepanek to return. Spain was ahead 6-3, leading triple set point. But the Czech Republic retaliated boldly. Stepanek connected with two fine first serves to close the gap to 6-5 for the Spaniards. Lopez tried to serve it out, but to no avail.

Berdych cracked a two-handed return that stifled Verdasco on the low volley, and it was 6-6. Lopez then tried to put away a high volley, but Berdych smacked a forceful overhead on the bounce from a deep position and aimed it near the middle of the court. There was no answer for that, and now the Czech Republic team had come from triple set point down to move ahead with a set point of their own. Berdych was serving to Lopez, who made a good return. Lopez worked his way in for a backhand volley winner. It was 7-7. Now Berdych felt he had to serve-and-volley against Verdasco, but the Spaniard made an excellent low return and Berdych missed the low volley flagrantly. Spain was back up 8-7, with a fourth set point.

With Verdasco staying back on serve as usual, an 18 stroke exchange occurred. Stepanek tried in vain in the middle of that point to put away a high volley but Verdasco ran it down and kept the point going until he could drill a forehand that forced Stepanek to miss a difficult backhand volley. Spain had the set, and with it the momentum. Yet the Stepanek-Berdych team did not give up. The second set stayed on serve until 5-5. Berdych led 40-15 in the eleventh game, but his team dropped the next three points. With the Czech Republic team down break point, Verdasco kept his team in the point with some good scrambling and then unleashed a sizzling forehand to rush Berdych into an error on the volley.

Serving for the set at 6-5, Lopez brought out his best stuff. At 40-30, he released an ace down the T. Spain was ahead two sets to love, and the rest was essentially a formality. Stepanek lost his serve twice in the third set, the Spaniards held throughout, and Lopez served out the match impressively at 5-2. Verdasco-Lopez prevailed 7-6 (7), 7-5, 6-2. In the entire match, Berdych was broken twice, Stepanek lost his serve twice, Verdasco got broken only once, and Lopez never conceded a service game. It was a first class doubles match, and Spain had won the Davis Cup for the second year in a row. The following day, Nadal beat Jan Hajek 6-3, 6-4 in a meaningless “dead rubber”, and Ferrer followed with a 6-4, 6-2 victory over Lukas Dlouhy to complete the sweep.

Spain may well be building a Davis Cup dynasty. Consider the depth of their talent. Nadal is ranked No. 2 in the world, Verdasco is No. 9, Tommy Robredo is No. 16, Ferrer is stationed at No. 17, former world No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero stands at No. 23, the gifted Nicolas Almagro finds himself at No. 26, Albert Montanes comes in at No. 31, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez is No. 41, and Feliciano Lopez is No. 47. That gives Spain two top ten players, four men in the top 20, six in the top 30, and 9 in the top 50. And there can be no doubt that many more top 50 players will emerge in the next few years.

Meanwhile, Rafael Nadal can take immense satisfaction from the role he played in the 2009 Davis Cup Final. After his brilliant start to 2009 when he won five tournaments in the first five months, he had endured his share of tough times ever since. One significant win over Tomas Berdych in the Davis Cup final may not make a world of difference, but it will allow Nadal to approach 2010 with a brighter outlook and a sense that he could recover his old identity in the not too distant future. 

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