Round: World Group semifinal
Dates: 22 – 24 September, 2006
Venue: Estadio Parque Roca, Buenos Aires
The image of the entire Argentine squad piled up on the court in a frenzied heap after winning a long-awaited place in the Davis Cup Final is one that truly resonates through recent Davis Cup history.
The team of David Nalbandian, Jose Acasuso, Agustin Calleri and Juan Ignacio Chela had ended Argentina’s 25-year wait for a chance to lift the trophy that over the years has become one of the most coveted prizes in South American tennis.
The fact that their opponent Australia failed to win a single rubber in its defeat to Argentina in the 2006 semifinals made the habitual pre-tie bravado coming from Down Under more heavyweight than it had been in the first place.
“Everyone has been writing us off but we feel we have a surprise up our sleeves,” Australia’s talisman Lleyton Hewitt had said at the draw. Mark Woodforde had even stepped in a few weeks prior to claim that the Australians were just as strong a contender as the Argentines, even on the red clay at Buenos Aires’ Estadio Parque Roca, which had been built for this very occasion.
Bad feeling heightens occasion
Relations between Argentina and Australia had been ruffled with bad-mouthing over the past 18 months, due in part to a fiery on-court encounter between Hewitt and Guillermo Coria in the quarterfinals the previous year. “Off the court he is one thing, but on the court you really feel like killing him.”
And Nalbandian didn’t attempt to alleviate the tension in the run-up to the tie, while Hewitt remained conciliatory. That match-up between the two No. 1s would have to wait until the final day, however. First, Mark Philippoussis would have to set the Aussies on a winning path by defeating Nalbandian in the opening rubber. A tough ask, considering the superb season the world No. 4 was having.
Philippoussis hadn’t played a match on clay since the 2004 French Open, and had returned from injury to win the tour title in Newport on grass, his first title for three years. But trying to manage the clay, and the 14,000 strong stadium that was packed at 11am, was like a toddler adjusting to his first steps. Nalbandian took less than two hours to defeat his 29-year-old opponent 64 63 63.
"I found it tough to put pace on the ball and in a lot of those rallies I thought I'd get a short reply to try and dictate the point and he'd get there comfortably," said Philippoussis. "The ball was just sitting up and he'd roll it cross court."
Philippoussis afterwards admitted that the noise factor, heightened by the presence of football impresario and Argentina’s Davis Cup fixture Diego Maradona, got to him. It was nothing to the levels the crowd would reach over the next four hours.
Storm hits Acasuso-Hewitt epic
Jose Acasuso had made his Davis Cup debut that year and so far had had a fairly smooth ride. He was yet to lose a match and had whizzed through his only two singles matches against Thomas Johansson and Jonas Bjorkman in the very same stadium seven months ago in Argentina’s first round tie against Sweden.
The Australian No. 1 took an expected two-sets-to-one lead but when Acasuso broke serve in the sixth game of the fourth set, the crowd got on their feet. Acasuso reeled off eight straight games in fading light before divine intervention, coming from Australia no doubt, sent in torrential rain and thunder which sent the players and fans running for cover.
"The weather was extraordinary but there is not a lot you can do about it,” said Hewitt. “I don't think I have ever played in darkness like that, or that much rain.”
With the match dangerously poised at 16 64 46 62 4-0, but with Hewitt at advantage on Acasuso’s serve, there was nothing that either player could do but reflect on the situation and reserve their mental zeal for the conclusion on Saturday.
Conditions the next day were cold and windy when play resumed at 11:30. Hewitt consolidated his advantage but he struggled to hold serve and after just 11 minutes on court, Acasuso had given Argentina a 2-0 lead. He tore off his blue and white shirt and threw it into the courtside box where Maradona was there to receive it and thrust it into the air.
“This is one of the most important matches I’ve ever played,” said an elated Acasuso courtside. “It’s a privilege and an honour for me, having not only all these people, but Maradona himself supporting and shouting for us so it was a way of thanking him and saying how grateful I am for having him here and supporting us again.”
Nalbandian's confidence pays off
The emotions of that match remained sizzling in the stadium as Agustin Calleri and Nalbandian, and Wayne Arthurs and Paul Hanley took to the court for the doubles. But sadly for the Aussies, the momentum that the Argentine’s had gained and their imposing record at home was impossible to defy.
“It’s a match in which we never got started,” said Arthurs after the 64 64 75 defeat. They had been hitting the ball well all week and had opportunities to get back into the first set but didn’t take them. “It snowballed from there. We were trying our arses off but it wasn’t quite happening. It’s the way it goes sometimes in this sort of atmosphere and it got on top of us a little bit.” “Wall-to-wall noise” was how Australian captain John Fitzgerald described it.
This was Hanley’s first ever Davis Cup season and his 35-year-old partner advised that he would look back on this match to help him in his future career. Arthurs left a good legacy. It was to be the last Davis Cup tie of his tennis career.
Red and white confetti replaced the downpour of the previous day and champagne corks went flying as the Argentines untied themselves from their glory pile and celebrated round the court with the fans.
For some, the emotions were too much. “It's unbelievable! For a long time we have waited for this,” said the tear-stained captain Alberto Mancini. “In the first hours you don’t realise what you have achieved but in the following days you see the real importance of it.”
Nalbandian, a usually stoical character off the court, laughed at his own foresight. “I told you guys it would be 3-0 and nobody believed me! This is one of the best things to happen in my life for sure.”
Bruised Aussies bow out
The win of course deprived the eagerly awaited match between Nalbandian and Hewitt, but the Australian team had nothing left to give. Hanley lost to Calleri 60 63 in the scheduled dead rubber on Sunday and Arthurs had to hand a walkover to Juan Ignacio Chela in the final match. They left Buenos Aires with Hewitt carrying a knee injury, Philippoussis suffering back pain, and Arthurs hampered by an Achilles tendon problem.
If USA had won its semifinal against Russia, Argentina would have earned a home final that year, but as much as “Vamos Roddick” rang out across the media centre on that Sunday of dead rubbers, it was Tursunov who pulled through for Russia.
Argentina would go on to lose to Russia 3-2 in the 2006 Final in Moscow and Acasuso would suffer one of the most crushing defeats of his career in losing the fifth and final rubber to Marat Safin.