by Pete Bodo
We had a hint of Nadal's feelings about Davis Cup at one US Open press conference, when a reporter asked Nadal an absurd question about the place he awarded winning the title in Sopot on his list of accomplishments. BTW, it wasn't even a reporter, but a photographer (which is a press room no-no), who probably asked the question for obscure ulterior motives.
Anyway, while Nadal didn't find it in his heart to put Sopot among his unforgettable moments, he had the Davis Cup final win over the US in Seville, Spain, in 2004, right up there at the top of his list. Make no mistake about it - Jet Boy is fired up, and so are his compatriots. And with a potential indoor final on fast carpet looming against either Argentina or Russia (either of which would host Spain in the final), this will be the Spanish lads' last chance to feel the loving embrace of the home crowd while cavorting on the team's surface of choice, red clay.
The flip-side of this equation is that the Spanish squad will be playing under a ton of pressure, and the US is led by one of the outstanding Davis Cup performers of our time, Andy Roddick. Now before you go to the comments and write ROFLMAO, consider this oddity: Nadal has "just" a 3-2 record against Andy Roddick, and only one of those matches was played on clay. That was in the 2004 final cited above. Nadal won that match in four sets, but two were tiebreaker sets and one of those was won by Roddick. As Pat McEnroe pointed out in the pre-tie presser earlier today, "Andy played a great match against Rafa on the first day of that tie. He had a chance to go up two sets to one in the match. I feel like if we can be in that kind of situation on the first day, we have a chance to win a match, anything can happen."
This response was measured and entirely appropriate, with no trace of either resignation or delusion. It was typical of McEnroe, and it also underscores the extent to which the US squad is confident but realistic. It's also a team with outstanding spirit and camaraderie, which is going to help Davis Cup rookie Querrey and forgotten but enthusiastic sub Fish.
But, as Roddick said, we all know who Rafa is, what he's done, and the kind of challenge he presents on clay. Nadal certainly is a different player from the Davis Cup rookie who led the Spanish to victory in 2004. But Nadal also may be a tired player, which has been an under-publicized aspect of his record in the second half of this year. I admire the way Nadal refused to introduce fatigue as a motif in his performance at the US Open. It may have been because he isn't, well. . .tired. But as the parent of any five-year old can tell you, fatigue just isn't in the vocabulary of youth. And in the case of Rafa, I think admitting to fatigue would be a little too much like confessing to a lack of determination - which is probably the cardinal sin in Nadal's world view.
I was on the phone the other night with a pal who has a great B.S. detector, and always has an insightful take on things. While we were were talking about the US Open, she said, "Aw, that Nadal. He looked exhausted." Now she isn't a KAD of any kind (well, okay, she's a New York Jets KAD), but her point is worth considering. Alternatively, Roddick made a good point on the fatigue issue today when he said: "You know, it will be amazing how 22,000 of his (Rafa's) closest friends (the reference is to the capacity of the arena in Madrid) will probably eliminate any sort of fatigue he may have. I think he knows that he's got a little bit of time off after this event, so I don't put much stock into it at all. He's too much of a competitor."
The element that can pull this tie back from the brink of a blow-out and perhaps make it an exciting tie may be the performances turned in by the Spanish number 2 and the surprise US doubles pairing of, probably, Mike Bryan and Mardy Fish. I imagine David Ferrer will join Nadal in the singles division. He hasn't played his best tennis this year, but his Davis Cup record is solid - he has only two losses (in six matches), and both of them were on his least preferred surface, indoor carpet.
The real issue here is how well Ferrer will deal with the pressure of playing before his home crowd as the overwhelming favorite against either US singles player. At times, I've felt that Ferrer plays his best when the expectations on him haven't been very high, and that he tends to get intimidated by Big Moments. So the job of the American players - preferably with a little help from the draw - will be to put him in a position where he'll have the weight of the world on his shoulders. The best draw for the US would be a Roddick vs. Ferrer opening singles match. The fact that Querrey is an unknown Davis Cup factor may also prey on Ferrer's mind if the tie is still live on Sunday, although by then Querrey will have given everyone a glimpse into his Davis Cup soul.
As for the doubles, the critical swing match when the teams split the first-day singles, I think the US team is in good shape with Fish and Mike Bryan. Breaking up the Bryans, albeit unintentionally, introduces another element of uncertainty that could cut either way. Sure, the Bryans are an outstanding 14-3 in doubles (the greatest US pairing, John McEnroe and Peter Fleming, were 14-1), but putting Mike in the yoke with Fish could refresh the former and inspire the latter. Fish is an inconclusive 1-1 in doubles, but both times he played with James Blake, who isn't particularly noted for his doubles skills. Fish has some of the earmarks of a good doubles player: an outstanding serve and volley, and a good sense of court space. He isn't the greatest mover on the tour, which hurts him in singles but ceases to be a serious disadvantage in doubles. The likely Spanish doubles team, Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez, are 2-2 in Davis Cup play.
The bottom line for me is that while there's never a good time to face a squad led by Rafael Nadal on Spanish clay, this isn't the worst time, either. And whatever psychological edge the Spanish may have hoped to enjoy by playing the match in a bullring is unlikely to kick in, thanks to the positive attitude of the US squad toward that decision. Echoing the words of his captain, McEnroe, Roddick said: "This stadium is great. I don't know if we'll ever get a chance to play in a bullring again. I think it's great for Spain to represent itself in such a unique way that's kind of specific to the country. It's just cool. I mean, you walk in and it's unlike any other stadium that we've every played in."
Mind games, or the loose - and dangerous - attitude that typifies someone gambling with house money? I'll let you be the judge of that. My own feeling is that the Spanish supporting cast will have to step up and show its Davis Cup chops if the hosts want to keep things from getting more complicated than most pundits expect.
Meanwhile, here are a few Davis Cup facts and figures to spice your day:
- The longest winning streak in Davis Cup was posted by the US, which won 17 consecutive ties between May of 1968 and November of 1973. The runner-up? Algeria, with 14 straight wins between 2001 and 2004.
- Spain played the most ties in a single year (8, in 1965), as it advanced through the (now defunct) zonal competition to wind up in the final (Challenge Round) vs Australia.
- The nation that has come back from an 0-2 deficit to win a tie the most times is Sweden (5).
- The most number of games in a tie in the World Group and tiebreaker eras was 281, in a tie between Equador and Romania.
- All five "rubbers" (matches) in a tie have gone to five sets on only two occasions in Davis Cup history: 2003 (Romania def. Equador) and 1946 (the former Yugoslovia defeated France).
- The most number of games in a set of doubles was 76, in 1973, when Stan Smith and Eric van Dillen of the USA lost the second set to Patricio Cornejo and Jaimie Fillol of Chile, 37-39. The US team had lost the first set, 7-9. But in a heroic comeback, the Americans won the third set 8-6, and swept the final two sets, 6-1,6-3.
- The longest fifth set in World Group doubles play was Lucas Arnold-ker and David Nalbandian's (let the jokes begin!) 19-17 triumph over Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Marat Safin in the 2002 semifinals.
- The USA's John McEnroe as a principal in the two longest rubbers (in terms of elapsed time) in Davis Cup history: McEnroe's 6:22 win over Mats Wilander in a World Group quarterfinal of 1982, and his 6:21 win over Boris Becker in a World Group relegation tie in 1987. [[note: There appears to be a discrepancy here; the official ITF Davis Cup Media Guide has McEnroe winning, but the official ITF website has Becker with the win. Hat tip to comment poster "Fingerprint" for pointing this out, correction to follow when I can establish the truth.]]
I'll be back tomorrow to look at some of the other intriguing match-ups of this Davis Cup weekend.