Blues for Baby Blue
It's hard to shake that nagging feeling that Argentina's greatest Davis Cup opportunity thus far came and went with the stunning 3-1 upset of Rafa-less Spain on Argentinian turf at Mar del Plata in the World Group final of 2008.
The Argentinian faithful — and nobody, but nobody, surpasses the Argentines in nationalistic fervor when it comes to nations-based competitions — were so crushed by the loss that the teams didn't even bother to play a fifth rubber. There was no exo featuring either team's doubles delegates in singles. No best-of-three, 6-3, 6-3 mail-it-in clash of the No. 2 men. And nobody cared, that's how profound the disappointment was in Mar del Plata.
The Spanish, led by Fernando Verdasco (who was half the winning doubles team and all of the tie-clinching singles effort), upended a team featuring veteran David Nalbandian and barely 20 but newly emerged international star Juan Martin del Potro. Technically, the key probably was the second singles, in which Feliciano Lopez upset Delpo after Nalbandian put the baby-blue-and-white up one with an impressive beatdown of David Ferrer — currently, Spain's No. 2 singles player, behind Nadal.
But one of the main subtexts was alleged dissension and bickering on the Argentine side. The cognoscenti believed that Argentina was a team in name only, and that personal jealousies and conflicts (mainly, between Delpo and Nalbandian) undermined the team's morale. it was hard to avoid comparisons (despite a difference in scale) with that American "dream team" (John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Peter Fleming and Jimmy Arias) that was upset in the ugly 1984 final in Gothenburg, Sweden.
This time, Spain will have Nadal, and it would seem that securing yet another Davis Cup for what is already one of the all-time great Davis Cup dynasties would provide a little balm for the wounds Nadal suffered in 2011. And this final will play out on red clay in Seville, the surface of choice only for the host nation.
Argentina does have a few things going for it, starting with Delpo's fresh legs (ATP No. 11 Delpo hasn't played a competitive singles match since the first week of November). Also, No. 26 Juan Monaco has had an excellent fall, and two weeks off — a perfect combination. Too, Argentina has the potential surprise factor, should team captain Tito Vazquez choose to play what you might call the Tarpischev card. As of now, Nalbandian and Eduardo Schwank are the nominated doubles team, but No. 64 and still mercurial Nalbandian is tennis's shining example of an "any given day" guy and I wouldn't be surprised to see him as a substitute in singles.
Also, there will be less pressure on Argentina this time around. Veteran Davis Cup hands know that as welcome as it is to play before a home crowd, the weight of expectations is also much heavier. Who knows, maybe a siege mentality will do wonders for the resolve, as well as the camaraderie, of the Argentines. But with Nadal leading the Spanish charge, it's hard to imagine that Argentina won't remain the best nation never to win the Cup.
Argentina, Romania, and India are the only nations that have contested more than one final without ever winning one. Argentina is 0-3 going into this tie (1981, 2006, '08). So let's take a quick look at the other two years that helped create this history of frustration.
1981 — This was an excellent opportunity for Argentina, because the players on captain Carlos Juquent's squad were Top Five talents: Guillermo Vilas, one of the all-time greats and a multiple Grand Slam champion, and Jose Luis Clerc. And this was the year Clerc hit his career best ranking, No. 4. But the Argentines had two big factors going against them, both of which may strike a chord of recognition.
The first and most obvious one was the venue. The tie was hosted by the U.S. (McEnroe, Fleming, an Roscoe Tanner) at the Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati, Ohio, on indoor carpet — a surface that is even faster than today's vastly more popular indoor hard. That heavily favored the Americans, because Vilas and Clerc were by far better on clay than any other surface.
The other key factor was that the Argentina's lack of a doubles team, or even viable substitutes. Argentina was literally a two-man team. If nothing else, this year's finalists comprise a four-man squad that leaves Vazquez with various options for singles and doubles. While there was no love lost between Vilas and Clerc (they were more Nalbandian and Delpo than Djokovic and Tipsarevic), and Clerc was no doubles devotee (he won 25 career singles titles, but just two in doubles), the Argentines played inspired doubles to push McEnroe and Fleming (perhaps the greatest doubles team of all time) to 11-9 in the fifth before they capitulated.
Unfortunately for the Argentines, the doubles put the U.S. up 2-1 (On day 1, McEnroe had manhandled Vilas in straights while Clerc posted an unexpected and brilliant straight-sets win over Tanner). On the final day, Clerc put up a great fight against McEnroe, who was perhaps the best player ever on indoor carpet, but the American clinched the tie when he won the fourth rubber, 6-3 in the fifth.
2006 — This one was surprisingly competitive, given that the Russian squad featured Nikolay Davydenko and Marat Safin, both at or close to the peak of their powers. Once again, though, the Argentines were visitors and playing on an indoor carpet in Moscow's Olympic Stadium. Nalbandian, however, has always been a fine player on fast indoor surfaces, and he proved it with a straights-sets win over Safin on Day One, and a fine four-set win over Davydenko on the final day of the tie.
However, nobody has played out the damnation-salvation narrative better than Safin, who made a career out of it. And neither Juan Ignacio Chela nor Jose Acasuso could stay with Safin on one of his good days. Argentina captain Alberto Mancini hoped that substituting Acasuso for day 1 loser Chela would either inspire Acasuso or unnerve Safin, but this time the former no. 1 and multiple Grand Slam singles champ came through in the fifth, decisive rubber, winning in four sets.
The 2006 final remains the one in which the Argentines came the closest to winning, and you can bet that current Argentina captain Tito Vazquez is looking for Juan Monaco to accomplish what Acacuso could not, if it comes to a decisive fifth-rubber next Sunday.