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04 December 2011

Davis Cup glory reaffirms Rafa as King


MATCH REPORT

Photo: Paul ZimmerRafael Nadal (ESP)


SEVILLE, SPAIN: Rafael Nadal’s Davis Cup moment has truly arrived. The minute he collapsed onto the red clay after winning the 2011 Davis Cup by BNP Paribas title for Spain, the entire 24,000-seat stadium did so with him. Even the Argentine fans, many in tears, couldn’t deny him his glory after the world No. 2 came back from a disastrous first set to defeat Juan Martin del Potro 16 64 61 76(0) and clinch Spain its fifth Davis Cup title in Seville.

Sobbing on the shoulders of teammates Juan Monaco and David Nalbandian, del Potro in everyone’s eyes was still a winner as the heart and determination he displayed in the 4 hour 8 minute war was second to none.

The win gifted Nadal his 20th straight singles win in Davis Cup, having not lost a match since his debut in 2004, but handed a gut-wrenched Argentina its fourth loss in four finals, the only team to play and lose that many titles in Davis Cup history. The sorrow and the glory on the faces of both teams summed up what was one of the biggest Davis Cup ties the competition has seen.

After victory, Nadal fittingly hugged each and every one of the Argentine team members before running over to Carlos Moya in the stands to embrace his friend who had done exactly the same thing for Spain seven years ago on the very same court.

Friday’s epic contest against David Ferrer was del Potro’s first five-set match in almost two years and the toll that it took on his 6’6” frame became evident as Nadal grew in stature more and more in the final three sets. The Argentine began the match with strapping on both thighs and several times had to call the physio to re-tape his legs at the changeovers. It was a tough ask for del Potro to erase Nadal’s record and overcome the King of Clay, but it had looked like something miraculous was about to happen as the fourth rubber got underway.

Nadal broke del Potro in the very first game but then didn’t win a single service game from that moment on until the third game of the second set. Del Potro was displaying a remarkable command of the baseline and stood tall in the big moments, batting away the repeated pressure of Nadal at exactly the right time. Both players faced eight break points on their own serve as the tussle swung back and forth.

The 61 first set – so easy on the scoreboard - took a gruelling 61 minutes after del Potro saved four break points in the final game and sealed the set on his third set point with a brilliant crosscourt backhand. The Nadal that had whipped Juan Monaco into shape on Friday was nowhere to be seen, and instead it was the 2009 US Open champion who was the one bringing out forehand winner after forehand winner.

Once Nadal rediscovered his form in the second set with his first service hold of the match at 2-1, the battle, in every sense of the word, really began. The Spaniard started to draw his opponent into the net to pass him with some bludgeoning shots and the first signs of energy loss were starting to show for del Potro.

The two shared service games with Nadal benefitting from two consecutive love games to send Spain 5-4 up. While a double Mexican wave made its way round the stadium, Nadal sprinted back on court to face the final game of the set. A forehand wide from del Potro set up a break and set point for Spain which Nadal sealed by smashing a lob away, and to which he responded with a huge leap in the air as he bounded around the court to obscene noise inside the Estadio Olimpico.

As soon as that second set was Spain’s, del Potro was struggling to make any inroads into Nadal’s head. The Spaniard was in his element, glistening on the court with sheer confidence and talent, and coming up with some implausible tennis that had his fans at full song, chanting his name like they were witnessing something quite immortal. Nadal took a 3-0 lead and straight after, del Potro managed to win his only game of the set by holding serve. Compared to a pitiful 24% of points won on his first serve in the opening set, Nadal had raised the stats to 94% in the third as he took a two sets to one lead.

But the match was not over yet by any means. A broken del Potro, unbelievably, began to increase the intensity, and with Fernando Verdasco yelling at him from the sidelines, Nadal found himself a break down and trailing his opponent 5-3 despite earning two breaks of serve in the first and the fifth games. The next game went to 30-30 when excruciatingly del Potro served a double fault which handed Spain the break back point and sure enough Nadal capitalised on the opportunity.

As umpire Pascal Maria issued a partisan crowd warning to the fans in the stadium, the Spaniard held serve to level the set at 5-5 and went 15-40 up in the 11th game. Del Potro saved one break point with a heart-racing forehand down the line but when he tried the same shot again on the next point, it fell into the net and Spain broke again for a 6-5 lead.

With the nation’s hopes on his shoulders, del Potro, full of anguish and pulling up with pain in his legs, continued to apply the pressure on Nadal and dive for every point until he broke him at 30-40 with a last ditch attempt at a sweeping forehand to force a tiebreak. But that was to be the last point from what was an undeniable valiant effort from the world No. 11, as Nadal stormed his way through the tiebreak to close out victory.

“It’s the perfect end to the season,” said Nadal on his first title-winning match in Davis Cup. “The atmosphere is really, really unbelievable so thank you very much all the Spanish crowd, all the Argentina crowd that makes this confrontation really really special and unforgettable.”

For someone who had started the year ranked No. 485, del Potro came away from the match with just as much respect as he would have earned had he defeated both Ferrer and Nadal this weekend. The Argentine team had everything against them in the lead-up to this Final, but still managed to scare the Spanish into upping their game, particularly after Nalbandian and Eduardo Schwank had beaten them into submission in Saturday’s straight sets doubles rubber.

Whether the nation has another chance at the title in future years is a story in the making, but one thing is certain – the determination will never wane.

Rafael Nadal (ESP) - 04/12/2011

Juan Martin del Potro (ARG) - 04/12/2011

Captain Albert Costa (ESP) - 04/12/2011

Captain Tito Vazquez (ARG) - 04/12/2011

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