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06 March 2011

Blog - Belgians back Rafa


Photo: Richard FlemingRafael Nadal (ESP)

By Richard Fleming in Charleroi

Rafael Nadal fans come in all forms; old or young, male or female – and this weekend – Spanish or Belgian.

Watching Rafa-mania is a sight to behold. The only person I have falling at my feet is a chiropodist. Rafa, meanwhile, has people falling over themselves for just the briefest of moments with their hero.

One young Belgian boy, with “Rafa’s #1 FAN” painted across his forehead, was almost bursting as he called out to his idol. Middle-aged women (one I heard had an English accent) wore their “Vamos Rafa” t-shirts with pride. Kids lurked by the team bench, pens and programmes in hand.

And there were pushy mums, cameras in hand, eager to snap Rafa with their kids, while testing the patience of security. Thankfully, Rafa is a patient man, with time for his fans, and happy to stand and smile as the flash bulbs pop and the cameras click.

He was also aware that his presence had caused quite a stir, and was humbled by it: “To all the Belgian fans, I say thank you. It’s been like playing at home and probably the best support we’ve had outside of Spain.”

Davis Cup is like no other men’s event. It thrives on nations coming together to back their boys, creating a special atmosphere. There’s been an extra special atmosphere in Charleroi, due to the Rafa factor.

Few sports men or women have quite the same effect as the world No. 1. He is a wonderful ambassador for Spain and for tennis – just ask the Charleroi crowd.

"Don't cry, we'll always have Bratislava"

By Gordan Gabrovec in Zagreb

As a German television reporter was still talking about the great five-set victory that Cristopher Kas and Philipp Petzschner pulled off in the doubles, the lights in Dom Sportova were turned off. An announcer in the arena started to speak.

He was racing through a series of sentences like he was in a big hurry. Now and then I would recognize that he mentioned Wimbledon, Davis Cup and Olympics. As he was talking, line judges, ballboys and ballgirls gathered on the court like they would do for a trophy presentation at the end of a tournament. Then the moment came. The announcer raised his voice saying: "Ladies and gentlemen, Marioooo Anciiiiic!"

He was there, waiting to step on the court in his Croatian Davis Cup team white jacket that he wore with so much passion and pride. He started to walk behind the girl who carried a Croatian flag. It was his last victory lane. He walked slowly, like he used to do when he was preparing to serve in a crucial point of the match. This time he neither had racket nor balls in his hands. People clapped and Mario waved.

This didn't last long, not more than a minute, but it seemed like a decade. Many memories about the man in front of me came to my mind.

There he was, in the same hall 12 years ago. He played his first match in Davis Cup. Portuguese Joao Cunha-Silva beat him, but I was charmed with the game of the 15-year-old boy. A few months later he would win his first ITF Futures title, beating Ivo Karlovic in the final. That day "Super Mario" was born, long before he would beat Roger Federer in the first round of Wimbledon in 2002.

I remembered how he dismantled Tim Henman two years later in the Wimbledon quarterfinals, which was probably his best match ever. I remembered that hot summer night in Athens when we waited until 3am to see Mario and Ivan Ljubicic winning a bronze medal at the Olympics.

There he was, standing in that same white jacket that Ljubicic and he wore on a path to Davis Cup glory in 2005. They achieved a lot together and who knows what else that could have been Mario’s if he was able to stay healthy.

He was always a warrior. In a small circle of people he was known as ‘the young samurai’. So many times we saw him being down-and-out in the match before he would somehow find a way to victory. He never was a quitter until the end when his body betrayed his desire to keep playing.

No one should be forced to leave something that he loves so much. And Mario, oh, how he loves to play tennis. He didn't get a chance to play in a Wimbledon final or beat Andy Roddick, the only man out of today's Top 10 on the ATP rankings that he never beat, not even in junior tournaments.

As pictures on the big screen were showing the greatest moments of his career, sorrow started to kick in. This was one of those moments when we should celebrate and feel sad, when we should cry and smile at the same time.

I stopped for a moment and looked once more at the man in front of me. There he was a 26-year-old tennis star who could no longer play tennis. But he’s a rare player in today’s world with a future career path already planned: he received his law degree a few years back after studying while home recovering from mononucleosis.

And then it came to me. This is not a time to cry. Why would we? We'll always have a Davis Cup victory over Slovak Republic in Bratislava to remember.

Courting style

By Craig Gabriel in Santiago

It has been well documented that Jim Courier made his Davis Cup playing debut in 1991, and is making his U.S. captain’s debut this weekend, 20 years later.

As you would expect he brings his own style and temperament to the job. Most of what he brings to the role is behind the scenes. Some is on show that you see as he sits besides the players on the court during matches. But the biggest talking point surrounding Courier is his fashion style while courtside.

He is not like any other Davis Cup captain around. They all wear tennis gear. Jim has elected to wear off-court gear instead. He’s donned a white polo shirt, thinly striped navy blue slacks and black dress shoes. He looks very dapper and it’s a tremendous change from what we’re used to seeing.

Courier said he didn’t want to be another captain who looked as if they were getting ready to play a match. He wanted to look... well, like the captain and not another player.

“I mentioned to the USTA that was what I had in mind and wanted to find out if there were any rules that needed to be followed with clothing,” he said.

“I said I wanted to wear a suit during the matches. I haven’t worn a suit here in Santiago, it’s been a bit hot, although I have felt pretty comfortable wearing this gear rather than the shorts and tracksuit.

“The USTA said it was absolutely fine with them as long I wore Hugo Boss suits. That was great by me because I was given Hugo Boss suits in Australia.”

Fire in their lungs

By Alexandra Willis in Ostrava

The Davis Cup by BNP Paribas World Group generally benefits from excellent home crowds.

Think of the masses squashed into Madrid’s Bullring when Spain took on USA, or the fearsome Argentine hoards when Nalbandian & Co. play at home. And, of course, Davis Cup’s newest champions, Serbia, whose home crowd partied for three days straight after Serbia won their maiden Davis Cup title.

But the local vocals here in Ostrava have been something else. A group of around 30 Czech tennis fans, who have all the makings of a marching band, have kept the noise level consistently above what would be considered ‘enthusiastic,’ banging, tooting, blowing an array of instruments to remind the Czech team that they are rather popular.

Always a McEnroe in the crowd

By Sandra Harwitt in Santiago

Patrick McEnroe is no longer the captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team – he handed the reins over to Jim Courier this year after a successful 10 year stint that delivered the 2007 Davis Cup crown. John McEnroe is no longer playing Davis Cup as he’s in his 50s and long gone from the regular tour. But the Chile v USA tie was certainly not McEnroe-less.

Patrick and John’s parents, John Sr. and Kay McEnroe, were faithfully on board as they have consistently been for American Davis Cup action. This time around, John Sr. is along in an official capacity as a member of the USTA’s Davis and Fed Cups board.

A Shrek encounter

By Richard Fleming in Charleroi

A previous blog entry of mine told of how one unofficial tour guide informed visitors that Charleroi was once voted the most depressing city in Europe. Well, I have to disagree. Let me set the scene …

Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco had earlier secured the win for Spain with victory in the doubles over Steve Darcis and Olivier Rochus. After the workday was over, I went with four colleagues to a restaurant in the centre of Charleroi, and enjoyed a splendid meal.

Someone suggested “one for the road” at a nearby bar. Not everyone was keen. It had been a long day. “Come on. One quick drink at a quiet bar,” came back the call. (Note the word “quiet”, as that is relevant to the tale). The restaurant owner told us where we could find a bar to supposedly suit our needs, and off we wandered, into the chilly Charleroi night.

Unfortunately, as we drew closer to our destination, the noise grew louder. We spotted the bar across the road. Our eyes then re-adjusted, and slap-bang in front of the “quiet” bar were 70-80 locals, dressed in all kinds of costumes, dancing to music being belted out by a brass band! Davis Cup weekend had clashed with Charleroi Carnival, and our “quiet” drink had just disappeared down the drain.

But it got worse – and more surreal. We negotiated our way past the woman dressed as a clown, the sailor, the chess piece, the gendarme and the ancient Greek and found a little solace inside the bar – only to see a rather sombre-looking man, sipping a beer, dressed as Shrek.

The 70-80 locals who had been outside the bar, then joined us inside. Not sure who was more put out, us or Shrek.

Captains just want to have fun

By Maximiliano Boso in Buenos Aires

Despite Argentina having  already won the tie against Romania on Saturday afternoon, about 7,000 people came to Mary Teran de Weiss stadium at Parque Roca to enjoy one last day of tennis in Buenos Aires.

In the opening rubber, Eduardo Schwank replaced the injured David Nalbandian to collect his first Davis Cup victory in singles over Victor Crivoi, who took the place of Victor Hanescu.

When the second match - between Juan Monaco and Adrian Ungur - was about to begin, dark clouds finally brought the rain. Both players headed to their benches, but Romania’s captain Andrei Pavel stopped them and came up with an idea: “Let’s join the guys”, he said to Tito Vazquez, Argentina’s captain.

So they borrowed rackets from their players and the four played for a while. Pavel displayed some fantastic tennis, while Vazquez hit a ball with his head, as a football player.

The music took over the place, Monaco started dancing on the court and the fans had a bit of fun before the sky cleared so the tennis could continue.

Relic TV set epitomises SPENS steel

By Zoran Milosavljevic

No, this is not a figment of your imagination or a fraudulent photo-shop image designed to fool people who still believe in fairytales. It’s a real life black-and-white television set in Novi Sad’s SPENS sports centre, the venue of Serbia’s 4-1 win over visiting India in their Davis Cup first round tie.

“It’s been here since 1981 when the complex was built and it has served customers faithfully for many years,” said a middle-aged waiter in the press lounge, as socialist-era in its appearance as the remainder of the seemingly dilapidated compound.

The SPENS sports centre has a 6,500-seater in which the defending Davis Cup champions beat India, a smaller ice hockey arena, a swimming pool and a basketball hall.

Despite its equally unappealing exterior, SPENS is a solid and well-structured venue. In fact, it’s ideal for events like the one it just hosted because the posh Belgrade Arena, where Serbia won its maiden Davis Cup title over France in December, may have looked a little empty had it staged the tie against India.

In contrast, the acoustic if somewhat neglected SPENS sports centre produced a cracking atmosphere as 4,000 or so fans almost blew the roof away with their incessant support for Serbia on Sunday.

“The fans were absolutely unbelievable and all credit for them, the whole team was stunned because we didn’t expect them to be as passionate and vociferous as that,” said Janko Tipsarevic, Serbia’s second singles player, who put the icing on the cake with a 60 61 rout of Karan Rastogi in the fifth dead rubber.

Unlike the fans and Tipsarevic, that old telly has not seen any action for quite some time, but its guardian waiter left no doubt about its functionality. “Absolutely, it would work if we plugged it in and turned it on but no one can be bothered, most people don’t even take notice of it,” he said.

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