Spanish BBQ

by: Steve Tignor | July 11, 2011

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Fl “It’s a historic victory and a dream come true,” Spain’s Davis Cup captain, Albert Costa, said on Sunday.

Normally, you might think that Costa would reserve big words like these for a win in the Cup finale. After all, his nation has won four of them in the last decade, and this weekend’s tie in Austin merely sent them on to the semifinals. But it wasn’t the round that mattered to Costa; it was the location.

“We never won in the States,” he continued. “For us it is a great breakthrough.”

It can be easy to forget, in light of those four recent titles by Spain, that it’s the U.S. that is still the all-time Cup-winningest country, with 32 titles and 29 runner-up appearances. It can be easy to forget that for someone like Costa, who played with Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, as well as his counterpart captain this weekend, Jim Courier, beating the U.S. in tennis must still feel like a monumental achievement for a relatively small country with a relatively short history of top-level dominance in this sport. It’s also easy to forget that just three years ago, on a fast indoor hard court in Winston-Salem, N.C., a similarly constituted American team swept the first three matches against a similarly constituted Spanish team, losing just one set along the way. Keeping all of those things mind, you can understand why Costa pulled out the big words, about breakthroughs and dreams coming true.

Watching the tie, what felt different this time around were the mental attitudes of the two teams, especially the attitude that the Spanish singles players, Feliciano Lopez and David Ferrer, brought to their matches. It was an away tie, on a court that was specially designed to favor their opponents, but they acted as if they were the ones feeding off the energy in the building, while Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish looked unsure of themselves at crucial moments. Lopez and Ferrer have both had their moments of fragility in the past—the former blew a lead against Roger Federer in Madrid this year, and Ferrer has caved against top players. But Davis Cup has brought out their best. While Rafael Nadal has been in and out of the competition during his career, Lopez and Ferrer, along with Lopez’s usual doubles partner, Fernando Verdasco, have helped form the backbone of this new dynasty. Lopez won a critical match over Juan Martin del Potro in the final three years ago in Argentina; in the following year’s final, Ferrer came from two sets down to beat Radek Stepanek 8-6 in the fifth. Spain went on to win the Cup both times.

Ferrer is No. 6 in the world and was at least an even bet to beat Roddick or Fish. The crucial match was the very first one, between Fish and Lopez, which the Spaniard won 8-6 in the fifth set; by ranking, Fish, No. 8, was a solid favorite over Lopez, No. 23. I’m not sure what verdict should be rendered about Fish’s performance in this match, and in his loss to Ferrer. It was his first Davis Cup tie as the U.S.'s No. 1 player and putative leader, though Fish maintained that Roddick was still the guy “we all bounce off.” Fish showed some heart by saving a lot of break points and never folding when he was behind. It’s hard to fault him for losing a long and close four-setter to the ultra-solid Ferrer, two days after losing a long and close five-setter to Lopez. Fish summed up the positive, but also heartbreaking side of his weekend: “I’ve played five Davis Cup singles ties in a row and every one has gone at least four hours. I’ve lost three of them and it’s really frustrating to lose that one. To play how I’ve played this tie and not come away with a win, it’s pretty tough.”

It’s hard to disagree with that, but at the same time I didn’t feel like Fish made the most of the advantage he had coming forward in the court, especially on break points. With his forehand as shaky as it was, he wasn’t going to out-rally Ferrer, and while he did try to press Lopez, it still felt like he left  opportunities to press the Spaniard, especially on his famously vulnerable backhand side, on the table there as well. Lopez’s final backhand pass was as brilliant as it was surprising, but Fish’s approach gave him too much time to set up. Fish is a Top Tenner now and the anchorman for the U.S., but it’s taken him a very long time to get to both of those places. At the advanced age of soon-to-be-30, can he get himself to believe, deep down, that he belongs there?

There’s no disgrace in losing to Lopez and Ferrer, both of whom played inspired tennis, but all three singles matches were up for the grabbing, including Roddick’s straight-set loss to Ferrer. Roddick opened that one by gunning his forehand like it was 2003, but even the faster surface didn’t allow him to keep gunning for long. The first crucial moment came at the end of the first set, when Ferrer, at the behest of Costa, made a correct challenge on a ball that appeared to have given the tiebreaker to Roddick; the second key point came in the middle of the second set, when Roddick had an opportunity to go up a double break at 4-0 but couldn’t make it happen. Still, while those two moments could have swung things considerably toward Roddick's side, I never got the feeling that he believed he was going to win this match. It’s been said in the past that Andy has a strong sense of pecking order—he believes he should beat those below him, often to the point of extreme aggravation if he doesn’t, but that he has trouble believing the same thing against those above him. Ferrer, a solid No. 6, seemed to command that kind of respect from Roddick. Even in front of his hometown fans, Roddick couldn’t rally; he went out with two double faults.

There was a lot of talk a few months ago that this surface was too fast and foreign even to be legal, but if anything it was the Spaniards who used it more effectively. If anything, it was their team that had the closest thing to a serve-and-volleyer, in Lopez; and Ferrer, while he rallied most of the time, took his chances to sneak forward when he saw them—the guy can volley, too. The away crowd, the foreign court, the veteran opposition: The Spaniards faced it all down and completely reversed the result from Winston-Salem in 2007. It was the Spanish team who used the Davis Cup moment, the pressure of playing for their country and the energy of their teammates on the sidelines, in a way that the Americans didn’t. This was as impressive a performance as the Spanish team has delivered in their Cup-winning years. It’s what a dynasty looks like in action.

It was also what Davis Cup looks like in action. After two weeks at Wimbledon, I had thought I would have had enough tennis for the time being. But Davis Cup is something different from other forms of tennis. By the time Fish and Lopez had split sets, by the time the Texas crowd was whooping it up and the Spanish team—could they have looked any more foreign?—was on their feet, I was pulled back in. All the emotions were there, from crushing disappointment for Fish to absolute respect for Ferrer.

My favorite moment, though, was seeing Lopez, after he'd missed what seemed like 999 backhand passes, finally pull one off at match point. The audience was stunned into silence. Fish was stunned enough to throw his head up in disbelief as the ball landed in. More stunned than anyone was Lopez. He stopped for a second before reacting with scream and a clutch of his head. A backhand pass at match point at 7-6 in the fifth set in Davis Cup? As Lopez's captain said, that’s what they call a dream come true.

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