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05 February 2008

Peru's 'tennis miracle' looks possible



  • Sebastián Fest
Of all the newcomer nations to this year’s Davis Cup by BNP Paribas World Group, Peru is the one likely to engender greatest passion. Not only does it have a home tie – unlike other promoted nations such as Serbia, Korea and Great Britain – but its present team is captained by a figure from its past who symbolises the last time the country had a presence on the global tennis map.

During his playing career, Jaime Yzaga, now Peru’s captain, was something of a party boy on the mens’ tennis scene. Gifted with a unique talent but minimum height, the small Peruvian was the owner of a delicious one-handed backhand, and every single inch of his 5ft 7in (1.70m) frame was full of tennis. But that didn’t stop him enjoying life on the tour.

Yzaga’s highest-profile win was probably his five-sets victory over the then world No 1 Pete Sampras at the US Open in 1994, but the peak of his career in tour terms came 20 years ago in Itparica, where he won the tournament in a final against Argentina’s Javier Frana. Itparica then was a tournament well known for its laid-back, extremely relaxed atmosphere. Placed in the calendar as the last tournament before the end of the season, it was staged in a paradise spot, a beach resort on an island a few kilometres from Salvador de Bahia.

During those years, Yzaga and Pablo Arraya – born in Argentina but who became Peruvian – were the guys sustaining Peru’s name at the top of mens’ tennis. They came within two sets of making it to the Davis Cup world group in 1989 when Arraya lost a live fifth rubber to Wally Masur in a Play-off Round tie against Australia. These days,the only man who represents Peru at the highest level is Luis Horna, a smart, analytical, sometimes ironical player who has the chance this week to become a national hero when he leads his country in its first Davis Cup by BNP Paribas World Group tie: a first round clash against the powerful Spain, twice the champion in the last eight years.

This is the first year Peru has made it to the Davis Cup world group, and Horna – who celebrated becoming a father by beating Roger Federer on the opening day of Roland Garros in 2003 – believes the upturn in the country’s tennis goes hand-in-hand with the upturn in its economic fortunes. “2007 was a great sporting year for Peru,” he says, “and we also foresee a very good 2008. There are people trying to change things, also economically. I’m really happy that the country is starting to abandon a very difficult economic situation. It’s true that this progress hasn’t yet reached all the towns deep in the country, but you can see the improvements and the optimism in the bigger cities.”

As background, Peru became something of a notorious country in the 1980s and 90s, first through the merciless Maoist guerrilla group Shining Path (‘Sendero Luminoso’) and then for the 10-year tenure of the controversial and somewhat extravagant president Alberto Fujimori. But last year the country in the Andes mountains posted the third biggest growth in GDP in Latin America, just behind Venezuela
and Argentina, and its current president, Alan García, whose first term in the 1980s saw hyperinflation in Peru, is presiding over an increasingly prosperous free market economy and recently signed a free trade agreement with the United States.

Horna clearly sees the economic prosperity from which he benefits as a good omen for the tie against Spain. Certainly, Peru’s chances in Lima this week have been enhanced by the fact that Spain’s top three players in the rankings are all unavailable. Two weeks ago, when Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer were due to be the main stars of the Spanish squad, Peru’s chances of defeating the 2000 and 2004 champions seemed really slim. Even then though, Horna always thought that winning was not impossible: “I think that we can win, otherwise I wouldn’t play,” he said.

Now, with Nadal and Juan Carlos Ferrero deciding not to travel, and David Ferrer suffering from an Achilles tendon problem, things look a little different, even if Spain will still be headed by Tommy Robredo, the world No 18. “Now, they have less potential, but are still big favourites,” said Yzaga, whose team relies on Horna at 120 in the rankings, Iván Miranda (292) as second singles player, and the inexperienced Matías Silva (653) and Mauricio Echazú (1128). More than 5000 spectators will back the Peruvians on the red clay of Lima’s Jockey Club, and while Spain is used to vociferous home support, Latin American fans will really make their presence felt.

Does Peru still need a miracle to win? Maybe not that much. But with some business commentators saying the country is right now living through an ‘economical miracle’, why couldn’t tennis also play its part? And if Peru does win, memories of Itaparica’s party could seem small and boring for captain Yzaga, because the whole country will be a single party.

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