Davis Cup delivers again as Delbonis and del Potro end Argentina’s hex

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Federico Delbonis and Juan Martin del Potro each won singles matches on Sunday to give Argentina its first-ever Davis Cup title. (AP)

If this saying doesn’t already exist, it should: Davis Cup never lets you down.

Coming into this weekend’s final between Argentina and Croatia in Zagreb, it was clear that the tie would offer everything that makes the team competition special. Yet somehow, on each count, the three days of play exceeded even the mostly wildly enthusiastic Davis Cup fan’s expectations.

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We knew, first of all, that this final, as most Cup finals do, would draw the most raucous crowd of the tennis season to a city that is typically far from the center of the sporting universe. The hometown Croats would obviously be out in force, but so would the Argentines, who travel like fans from no other nation. Neither side disappointed.

The tie was played in front of alternating waves of color. On one side was an undulating, vertical sea of blue-and-white Argentine stripes; on the other side was a vast checkerboard of Croatian red and white. The Argentines wore wild wigs, leapt to their feet at any opportunity, sang and danced and chanted in the aisles, and put a guy in a Pope hat to help them keep the faith. Whenever they have a chance to make an event into a soccer match, the Argentines take it. The Croats countered with patriotic hats, spectacles and face paint. First-serve misses were booed, wayward service tosses were jeered, and the result of each and every point was greeted with delirium from the winning side. Yet the tie was still played in a spirit of sportsmanship.

Despite all of the un-tennis-like noise and hoopla and distraction, the game was better for it. At the end of a year in which we worried that tennis takes too long, no one in the arena seemed to grow weary of the competition, even after 15+ hours of play over three days. The Argentines had waited far longer, and flown across an ocean, for this moment. It was the fifth time the country had reached a Davis Cup final, and for much of the weekend it looked like it would be the fifth time they would leave in second place. Not only was Argentina the best nation never to have won the Davis Cup, it was the nation that cared more about winning it than any other. (When you see how the country’s fans travel, you start to wonder whether holding the Davis Cup at a neutral venue, as many would like to do, would make any difference; the seats would probably just be filled with Argies.)

No one symbolized their frustration, and their loyalty, more than soccer great Diego Maradona. Ten years ago he traveled with many of these same fanatics to Moscow, only to watch Argentina lose a decisive fifth rubber to Russia. This time, at the end of Sunday’s final match, when Federico Delbonis walked out to serve for the Davis Cup, Maradona jabbed his index fingers in the air and screamed at a friend: “One more!” Like the rest of his countrymen, he could hardly believe what he was finally seeing.

*****

We knew that this final, as most Cup finals do, would give two top players who hadn’t won any major titles this season a chance to finish with one. And those two players, Juan Martin del Potro and Marin Cilic, did everything they could—and a little bit more—to make it happen.

For most of the weekend, Cilic seemed destined to play the hero. In the opening rubber on Friday, he overcame an attack of nerves to close out Delbonis in a fifth set, after losing the third and fourth. On Saturday, Cilic and Ivan Dodig teamed to give Croatia the doubles point for the third straight time this year. Finally, on Sunday, Cilic went up two sets to love over Del Potro, a player who had beaten him in eight of their 10 meetings. Cilic served brilliantly, pushed Delpo behind the baseline, finished rallies with his down-the-line backhand, and played with more passion and aggression than his nice-guy personality normally allows.

While Delpo bounced back to win the third set, there was a moment at the end of the fourth when Cilic appeared ready to cross the finish line. Serving at 4-4, Delpo went up 40-0, but Cilic played three of his best points of the weekend to level it at deuce. That’s when chair umpire James Keothavong stepped in and inadvertently put a halt to Cilic’s momentum. Keothavong handed Del Potro his second time violation, which meant that he would lose his first serve on the next point. Delpo predictably went ballistic, and then just as predictably got fired up and began to play better—often, the worst thing that can happen to a player is to have his opponent get a time warning.

Unfortunately, that was the case with Cilic, as Delpo fired a 120-M.P.H. second serve for a winner, barked in Keothavong’s face, went on to hold, and broke to send the match to a fifth set. Now Delpo had the momentum, and he didn’t give it up. His 6-7 (4), 2-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-3 win, in 4 hours and 53 minutes, was the first time he had come back to win from two sets down. It was also the perfect, tear-filled finish to a storybook comeback season for Del Potro.

*****

We also knew that this final, as Cup finals often do, would give a journeyman a million-to-one chance to play the hero and etch his name on the game’s biggest trophy, and in its history books. In recent years, the honor has fallen to relatively unsung men like Viktor Troicki, Nicolas Escude, Mikhail Youzhny and Radek Stepanek, all of whom won deciding fifth rubbers in the finals. But none of those players was quite as obscure as 41st-ranked Federico Delbonis. Before this weekend, his two claims to fame were having beaten Roger Federer when Federer was testing a new racquet, and owning the most pronounced service hitch in tennis.

Delbonis, who is primarily a clay-courter, got off to a slow start against Cilic on Friday, but by the third set he had been to gauge the pace of Zagreb’s quick indoor hard court. On Sunday, it was obvious from the start of his match against Ivo Karlovic that he was feeling comfortable. Delbonis walked calmly and showed no nerves; he served well and didn’t rush his passing shots; and most surprising, he handled Dr. Ace’s titanic serve with ease. Delbonis’ best shot is his backhand, but it has never been better than it was on Sunday.

By the time Delbonis watched Karlovic’s final shot sail long, half the Argentine crowd looked like they had tears in their eyes. For once, they were tears of joy rather than anguish. Their leader had led, their role player had found his role, and their fans had done what fans do—kept the faith.

The rest of us watching from the outside were left to ask, as we are at end of most tennis seasons: Tell me why, again, we would want to change anything about the Davis Cup?

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