Monday, 5 December 2011

2011 Davis Cup Final Reaction: Spain def. Argentina

So the Spanish Armada sails again, reclaiming the Davis Cup through a monumental struggle against a courageous Argentinian team. Rafael Nadal had the grand honour of clinching the title for his nation, and for the final match of the tennis year, it was a fitting, epic battle replete with marvellous and audacious shotmaking, incredible athleticism and a towering display of willpower from both the eventual victor, and his devastated opponent, Juan Martin del Potro. The atmosphere was more raucous than at any other tournament this year and the Argentinian contingent pound for pound matched the greater number of home supporters in the magnificent stadium in Seville. Each man energised his own support base and they in turn gave the spur to both players to keep fighting and find something extra, a dynamic which makes the Davis Cup so exciting to watch.

Del Potro gave the Argentinian supporters plenty to cheer for when he made a sprint start that knocked Nadal off his feet for the whole first set and at the start of the second. The Tower from Tandil, as he is endearingly called, opened the match with a barrage of cannon ball groundstrokes to hit a flurry of winners past a nervy looking Nadal, forcing the Spaniard far back behind the baseline. It was a firestorm of incredible hitting that carried on without hesitation into the second set where it looked like an unthinkable upset was now a distinct possibility. But Nadal crucially kicked his game up several levels after being broken straight away at the start of the second and managed to start hitting the ball bigger and deeper, dictating more rallies and mentally shaking himself out of the shellshock which had scuppered his game up to that point. Both men traded service holds until 5-4 when Del Potro faltered while serving to stay in it. It was a huge shot in the arm for Nadal and the first sign of nervousness from the Argentinian, who fell off the pace in the third set while the clay maestro dramatically increased his level, upping his aggression and winner count to shut his now flagging opponent out, 6-1. Now rolling along with wind in his sails the Spanish helmsman looked to do the same in the fourth set as he broke immediately. Del Potro looked shattered and overwhelmed by the task ahead of him, but incredibly despite all this he mounted a stubborn comeback, and managed to recoup the break to level at 2-2. However, the deficit was quickly resumed as Nadal broke to go 3-2 up, and by this point it seemed that the match was almost entirely over.

It was last stand territory for del Potro, and he responded magnificently, finding the magnitude of shot that earned him the first set. and smashed through Nadal's defences to break immediately back.. It is a truly terrifying sight to watch him rocket the ball so cleanly and powerfully, and he is perhaps the one player that everyone on tour fears to play more than any other when he is finding the lines. After blasting a forehand at Nadal to force an error on break point he launched himself into the air with renewed vigour, and with the Argentinian supporters making their voices heard as he broke to lead 5-3 he looked poised to force a decider. However the set's see-saw like logic would not permit the set to finish by virtue of a service break and Nadal clawed the break back with a brilliant forehand pass down the line. After holding to draw level at 5-5, he engineered what many would have assumed to be the definitive break of serve, but while del Potro looked like a man who had absolutely nothing left, he refused to yield and struggled his way to force an opportunity to take the set into a breaker, breaking to 30 with his battering ram forehand. But Rafa was not to be denied, and he subsequently ran away with the tiebreaker to secure another Davis Cup for Spain and put the spoils on Argentina's still un-satiated campaign for its first.

Spain is a Davis Cup powerhouse right now, and is arguably pound for pound the best team nation of the last decade. It has a depth of quality that few other nations come close to matching and has proved that even without Nadal it can prevail - as it did against Argentina in the 2009 final, which was also on hard court and not on home territory. But with Nadal as the spearhead it inspires confidence in Spain's ability to clinch future ties in pressure situations. It must have been a huge release of pressure for Nadal after enduring a year of heavy losses to Novak Djokovic, and to have the honour of clinching the Davis Cup over a brilliant effort from Juan Martin del Potro could well provide the impetus for him to overturn his difficulties this year and rekindle the passion he has admitted to be lacking of late. Praise however must also be justly lavished on David Ferrer, who vanquished del Potro two days before Nadal in an arduous five setter and shares the victory every bit as much as Nadal. If Tito Vasquez' strategy of winning the non-Nadal matches worked, starting with del Potro defeating Ferrer, the outcome may well have been reversed. But Ferrer proved like Nadal that he is a man for the big stage and weathered the onslaught to put Spain in a commanding position after the first day, and would have been fully capable of clinching the tie if it went to a fifth rubber. They have a daunting Davis Cup record between them with an untarnished singles resume on the clay, and are undoubtedly the strongest singles pairing in the world right now. For both men it is a humble victory for the nation and not for either of them individually, but simultaneously the victory will give them the confidence to start 2011 as strongly as they ended it. Although for Nadal this year was undoubtedly one of his worst, and he bowed out of the World Tour Finals looking lacklustre, he still won the French Open and the Davis Cup - two tournaments we can say he comfortably owns when he is on form. Ferrer on the other hand produced his finest season to date. He beat two different world no.1s (Nadal in Australia, Djokovic in London), made the World Tour Finals semi-final and helped Spain secure the Davis Cup, as well as performing almost all year round at his highest ability. They are both excellent ambassadors for the sport, and their dedication to find the energy to win the Davis Cup the week after the World Tour Finals was a phenomenal display of sheer mental determination.

To close, it would be an insult not to remark on the tremendous performance of Juan Martin del Potro throughout the Davis Cup and the bright future many have predicted for him. The pressure was all on his shoulders, and for someone we forget is still young, he committed himself admirably despite being on the losing side twice in a row. He pushed both Ferrer and Nadal as far as he could and fought relentlessly to prolong a tie which was skewed favourably towards the Spanish, summoning some his best tennis for the biggest occasion. There were not just flashes of his US Open victory in 2009, but extended examples of how good del Potro could be next year; in the first set against Nadal he played a flawless set of outstanding attacking tennis, and looked convincing enough at that point to have won the match. Against Ferrer he led by two sets to one and perhaps should have closed it out in the fourth set, but was eventually beaten by the Spaniard who has a signature habit of not staying dead. Del Potro was understandably hurting a lot after both losses (mentally and physically) but the signs are encouraging for an immensely talented player many still project to be a future world no.1. His rise this year into the top 20 from outside the top 200  has been nothing short of staggering, and we can read his last two performances of the year as a warning shot to the rest of the tour. Currently ranked 11, he inhabits the position of a danger man no one wants to face in the early stages of a Grand Slam, and he gave both of the two best players in the world a scare at the French Open and at Wimbledon, managing to take a set off Djokovic and Nadal and threatening to pull off a huge upset. He has the ability and the belief that he can return to the heights of winning his first major, and it will provide one of the most interesting narratives next year, one that may even impact on those of the current top 4.

Friday, 2 December 2011

2011 Davis Cup Final Preview: Spain vs Argentina

In a rematch of the 2008 final, Spain will face off against Argentina in front of a home crowd in Seville, Spain. The Spaniards are heavily favoured to raise the Davis Cup again, and for the Argentinians the odds would appear to be stacked monumentally against them. It is possibly the most daunting prospect of defeating a clay specialist nation on its own turf, against the greatest clay court player of all time and his formidable wingman, David Ferrer over 5 sets, and an excellent doubles team in Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco.

Argentina will be relying heavily on Juan Martin Del Potro to make an upset by defeating David Ferrer in the second singles rubber and attempt to put the Spanish doubles team under pressure going into the second day. The coach of Argentina, Tito Vasquez, has already made a bold gamble to front Juan Monaco for the opening rubber against Rafael Nadal instead of the superior Nalbandian, who is scheduled to play the doubles with Eduardo Schwank, and the logic would appear that he is hoping for Del Potro to win, and to take the doubles the following day. One can only conclude that the strategy with Monaco is to draw the match against Nadal out, because it is unforeseeable that he would be able to defeat the King of Clay, who has never lost on clay in the Davis Cup, and to win as many matches around those involving Nadal, as possible. Unfortunately, it is a strategy that doesn't make a lot of sense - the approach should be to win every match, not to build it around calculating the matches which can be won or lost. The efficacy of his strategy will be borne out after the two singles matches  are played tomorrow.

Certainly, the talented, huge hitting Del Potro has an excellent chance against Ferrer, who has admitted to feeling tired, and being forced to extend his tennis season because of the Davis Cup final. The tall Argentinian is a very good clay courter and moves very well on the surface, and with his powerful groundstrokes combined with what has been reported to be a zippy surface, he may well be able to hit through Ferrer. But we should not expect less than everything from Ferrer, who is an excellent clay player and a defensive fortress -no matter how tired the Spaniard is, Del Potro will need to be striking a clean consistent ball against him to have a chance.

It is difficult to envision the Argentinians upending the Spaniards on home territory, but there is a glimmer of a chance, and will depend firstly on Del Potro getting a win over Ferrer - if Spain take the first two matches, the tie could well be over. But even then the pressure will still be on them to secure the doubles on saturday, which is another uphill task against two experienced players in Lopez and Verdasco. I can't see past a convincing win for Spain with the intimidating Rafael Nadal at the helm of one of the strongest Davis Cup teams in recent history.

Prediction: Spain: 4 Argentina: 1