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16 September 2011

Spain take giant step towards final


MATCH REPORT

By 

  • Clive White

Photo: Paul ZimmerRafael Nadal (ESP)

CORDOBA, SPAIN: The reigning Davis Cup by BNP Paribas champions Serbia may have something to say about it, but Spain, whom Guy Forget described as “the best team in the world – by far”, at least held up their end in trying to bring about the dream final by taking a 2-0 lead against France on the opening day of their World Group semifinal here at the Plaza de Toros de los Califas.

If the opening rubber between Rafael Nadal and Richard Gasquet was something of a foregone conclusion given that the former had won their last nine matches, the second rubber of the day, between David Ferrer and Gilles Simon, promised to be much more competitive. The reality, however, was something quite different.

The straight-backed Frenchman had emerged the narrow victor from their last set-to on the hard courts of Cincinnati last month, but back on the terracotta surface he found the tenacious Spaniard in his element. Try as he might, he just couldn’t keep him at bay. Ferrer was like one of those big-hearted bulls who sometimes grace this arena and never know when they’re beaten. Or, as he put it perhaps more appropriately, “like Rafa!”

The difference this time was that the bullish one emerged triumphant, winning 61 64 61 in 2 hours 8 minutes, which was one minute less than it took Nadal to despatch Gasquet even more comfortably. Four and a quarter hours to play two best-of-five-set Davis Cup rubbers on clay in the boiling heat of the Andalucian sun was a result for the Spanish players in more ways than one.

It was a bitter setback for Forget’s team. The France captain had been banking on Simon squaring the tie and giving them a fighting chance of springing a surprise in the doubles on day two. It was then that he hoped to launch the furious firepower of a fresh Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the Spanish in the reverse singles. The best laid plans o’ mice an’ men...

“It’s very painful to watch your players suffer against such a good team,” said Forget. “They played alright but to beat Spain in Spain you have to play great.” 

It’s 15 years since France last came back from 0-2 down to win a tie, but with all due respect to the Italians Andrea Gaudenzi and Renzo Furlan they’re not Nadal and Ferrer – nor even Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez.

And yet Forget may look back on this tie with some regret. There is little doubt that Nadal was not exactly in the pink of condition, either physically or mentally, after the latest reverse against his nemesis Novak Djokovic in New York. Indeed he admitted as much himself. “I’m close to the end of my energy,” he said. “I’m not in perfect condition physically, I know that. If the match stays longer it will be very difficult for me.”

Whatever gear Nadal was in in beating Gasquet 63 60 61 it certainly wasn’t top gear and had he not been back in the bosom of his native Spain and on the surface he loves best of all he might have struggled against another opponent. As Albert Costa, the Spanish captain, conceded: “I was more worried about Rafa than David.”

As it is, Spain could win this tie in cruise control and even avenge their shock 5-0 defeat to France last year with victory by a similar margin.

Only momentarily, halfway through the first set, did Gasquet threaten to make a match of it. He seemed to have reconciled himself to the inevitably of defeat at the outset, dropping his serve in the opening game. But then in the fifth game he suddenly began to show some fight and self belief, smoking a few forehands – a stroke which when it went in was arguably the heaviest on court.

Sadly for the French, it didn’t last long and he succumbed to Nadal’s third set point on his own serve. Costa was doing a passable impersonation of an attendant in a Turkish baths, except that it was soaking wet towels rather than dry ones that he draped over his player’s head in an effort to keep him cool.

Nadal was still steaming though in tennis terms, winning 14 of the last 15 games. In desperation Gasquet tried to break Nadal’s rhythm by going to the net more often, but he just ended up being passed with monotonous regularity. His resistance to all intents expired in the second game of the second set when after forcing six deuces on his own serve he was broken again. Nadal, on the other hand, recorded an impressive 100 per cent for points won on both first and second serve.

It must have been disheartening for Simon to see Ferrer look so sprightly in the scorching mid-afternoon sun. After surrendering the first set he seemed to be making a match of it in the second set as breaks were traded and even had three break points in the 10th game when Ferrer eventually held to win the set.

It was a long back for the Frenchman then as it is now for his team.

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Gilles Simon (FRA) - 16/09/2011

Richard Gasquet (FRA) - 16/09/2011

Rafael Nadal (ESP) - 16/09/2011

David Ferrer (ESP) - 16/09/11

Captain Guy Forget (FRA) - 16/09/11

Captain Albert Costa (ESP) - 16/09/11

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    • Gilles Simon (FRA)The stadium in Cordoba
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    Clive White

    Clive started writing about sport at the 1966 World Cup final, since when, he says, it’s been all downhill... for England if not necessarily himself. He joined The Times at 21 before moving to the Sunday Telegraph where he provided worldwide coverage of tennis and football. As ghost writer to John McEnroe for six years, Clive learned that sport, far from being a matter of life and death, was, in fact, much more serious than that.

  • SPAIN V FRANCE

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    4 : 1
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    Plaza de Toros de los Califas, Cordoba, Spain

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