By Clive White
When David Nalbandian lost in straight sets to Lleyton Hewitt in the 2002 Wimbledon final he was seen by many as an interloper, someone who was unlikely to grace a Grand Slam final again. They were right in some respects because the Argentine has not passed that way again but very wrong in every other because he went on to establish himself as one of the outstanding players of the modern era.
Of course, he may be destined to retain his unwanted tag as the greatest player of the present day never to win a Grand Slam, but he now has a golden opportunity – maybe his last opportunity – to do something that even his great rival Roger Federer has never done, which is win Davis Cup.
It is probably fair to say that no-one wants victory in Seville more than the man from Cordoba. Whatever his trials and tribulations in tournament play these last few injury-ravaged years he has somehow come alive in Davis Cup, pulling off wins that he had absolutely no right to given his health at the time.
As he explained: “It’s an exciting competition – different from the rest. I really enjoy every time I have to defend [the honour of] my country and that’s what I like.”
He may have had a better opportunity to win Davis Cup against the same opposition three years ago on home soil when the Argentines shot themselves in the foot because of what Rafael Nadal referred to the other day as “a lot of internal disagreement”, but that has been consigned to history.
With the even-tempered Tito Vazquez at the helm, Argentina is a much more harmonious group and few underdogs will have come into a Davis Cup Final with a better pedigree or a sharper bite. Nalbandian, when he is right, is one player nobody in the world enjoys facing: not too many players have beaten both Federer and Nadal at their peak in successive Masters finals, as he memorably did in the autumn of 2007 at Madrid and Paris.
He will be 30 on New Year’s Day which in itself is not a problem but his ongoing health issues may be. He doesn’t need to be told what a marvellous opportunity this is to win one of the greatest and most elusive prizes in the game. The Argentine captain is reluctant to describe this as Nalbandian’s last chance to do so; in fact he thinks it is more likely to be his own last chance – “it’s a stressful job!”
“I wouldn’t say it’s his last chance but he’s definitely been having a lot of problems with his condition, he’s been injured a lot of the time through the year,” said Vazquez. “It’s very difficult to come back and get injured again, and that’s his setback. It’s a close call.”
But if we have learned anything about this enigmatic individual during the past 10 years - particularly where it concerns Davis Cup - it is that you write him off at your peril.
Getting to know Estadio Olimpico
By Chris Bowers
In 1999, the authorities of Seville – one of the most beautiful cities in the south-west of Spain, not far from the port of Cadiz from where many of the 15th century conquistadors set sail for the New World – built a 75,000-seater stadium for the World Athletics Championships. It was named the Olympic Stadium (Estadio Olimpico in Spanish) because it was to be the cornerstone of Seville’s bid to host the 2004 Summer Olympics.
That bid failed, as did another one for the 2008 Games, and as Seville’s two soccer clubs Real Betis and Sevilla FC each have their own stadiums, the Estadio Olimpico has become a somewhat underused if still highly impressive arena.
It hosted the final of the 2003 UEFA Cup, Europe’s second-biggest club soccer competition, and has staged concerts by U2 and Madonna, but gives the impression of being all dressed up with nowhere to go.
Until Davis Cup arrives, that is. At the 2004 Final between Spain and USA, a new record was set for the largest ever crowd at an officially sanctioned tennis match, as 27,200 spectators surged into the arena to see the hosts defeat the Americans 3-2. Not since 1954 had a competitive tennis match attracted such a huge crowd, when Vic Seixas and Tony Trabert beat Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall to steer the USA to its 17th Davis Cup title in front of 25,578 spectators in Sydney’s White City stadium.
This weekend, the court is once again set up at the north end, with three temporary stands rigged up in conjunction with the permanent seating. The roof is a 3,200 square metre structure made of 100 tonnes of steel and has been attached to the permanent roof in order to cover over 22,200 available seats. The structure, orchestrated by architect Jose Luis Vargas, will be reused for other events by Seville’s city council.
Rafa's target practice
By Clive White
Rafael Nadal had to put up with some mild mockery from onlookers during practice at the Olympic Stadium in Seville as he repeatedly failed to hit a ball can with his serve. Worse was to follow for the world No. 2 when one of the older members of Albert Costa’s coaching staff then stepped up and struck the same can with unerring accuracy. As a “clay-shooter” extraordinary it shouldn’t be too long before the Spaniard gets his sights set correctly and it will obviously help once an Argentine steps into his firing line.
Nalbandian could call the tune
By Clive White
While the Olympic Stadium in Seville waits for the day when it eventually stages the event it was built for it happily plays host to pop concerts, European football finals and, of course, Davis Cup finals. The Irish rock band U2 played there last September. We’re not sure whether David Nalbandian does karaoke but surely he would have felt compelled to sing along with their classic I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. This could be the weekend he eventually does.
Doubles trouble for Spain?
By Clive White
It’s no wonder Argentina are pinpointing the doubles as a very winnable rubber in this Davis Cup Final. Spain’s Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco are formidable singles players but just haven’t been able to get it together recently as a pairing, losing 10 of their last 11 matches, including the semifinal rubber against France. They came together for the first time seven and a half years ago in Barcelona when they lost to the long since retired Antonio Prieto, of Brazil, and Mariano Hood, of Argentina. Not a good omen for the Spaniards.
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