Friday, 2 December 2011


While Novak Djokovic and Janko Tipsarevic sit back on a beach in the Maldives this weekend relaxing after another long and tough season, the work continues for Rafael Nadal as Spain take on Argentina in the final of the Davis Cup.

For us here in the UK, the competition has lost a bit of its shine in recent years as Great Britain languished in Euro/Africa Zone Group Two, but that certainly isn’t the case for the 27,000 fans who will generate a raucous atmosphere at the Olympic Stadium in Seville for today’s opening singles rubbers.

This is the place where, in 2004, Nadal really did make the world stand up and notice.  He was only an up-and-coming 18-year-old ranked outwith the top 50 at the time, but Spanish captain Jordi Arrese opted to field him ahead of former world No.1 Juan Carlos Ferrero for an opening day clash against the then world No.2 Andy Roddick.

It was a decision which raised the eyebrows of many and understandably made Ferrero feel slightly aggrieved, despite the close unity of the Spanish side. 

Even Nadal was unsure that his captain had made the right choice.  Perhaps not the best mentality to approach the biggest match of your fledgling career, but in the end he claimed a famous win over the American and instantly became a national hero as his country went on to clinch the cup.

It will be of no surprise to the many fans who were at the stadium that weekend that Nadal returns to Seville seven years later having won ten grand slam titles, an Olympic singles gold medal and numerous ATP tour titles.

Nadal does not return to Seville in form, though.  The world No.2 has not won a tournament since he beat Roger Federer on the clay of Roland Garros back in June.  Furthermore, the five defeats he has suffered at the hands of Djokovic this year have been a blow to the confidence, and his comments in London last week that he has “a little bit less passion for the game” were worrying.

But he has been in similar situations before.  After winning the Rome Masters in May 2009, he went 11 months without winning a title before ending his drought when he returned to the clay in Monte Carlo the following year.

He also immediately put behind his damaging defeat by Djokovic in the US Open final this year to concentrate on duties for his country.  Less than 18 hours after stepping off the court in New York, he was back on the court in Cordoba practicing for the Davis Cup semi-final against France, a tie in which he lost a combined total of just ten games in his two straight-sets victories over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet.

Returning to clay seems to provide some form of relief for Nadal on the back of tough times.  It is the surface he knows best and he will be glad to feel the red stuff under his feet again as he steps onto court to face his good friend Juan Monaco in today’s opening rubber.

There is no doubt that Spain are overwhelming favourites to lift the Davis Cup for the fourth time in 12 years.  Nadal’s record in the competition is quite incredible – he has never lost a match on clay and has only lost one of his 18 matches, which was a defeat on carpet on his debut against the Czech Republic’s Jiri Novak back in 2004.

Statistics like that make it appear that Nadal winning his two matches this weekend is almost as guaranteed as the sun rising and setting every day.  It is today’s second rubber between David Ferrer and Juan Martin Del Potro which will be pivotal for Argentina if they are to have any hope of winning the Davis Cup for the first time in their history this weekend.

The fact that Del Potro pretty much gave up on his chances of qualification for last week’s ATP World Tour Finals in London to concentrate on preparing for the final shows how much this weekend means to him and his country.

The 2008 final between the two countries in Mar del Plata was one which hit Argentina hard.  At home on a hard court, they were the favourites against a Spanish side without Nadal.  In the end, though, it was Spain who claimed a famous 3-1 victory.

David Nalbandian was a member of the team that day and three years later, he and his fellow countrymen come to Seville looking for revenge against all odds.  It is also regarded as one of Nalbandian’s last chances to win the competition as his ranking continues to drop slowly and his 30th birthday on New Year’s Day 2012 fast approaches.

Nalbandian is regarded as a sort of Colin Montgomerie-type in his homeland – a top class player who has failed to win any of the major tournaments, yet seems to thrive in the environment of team competition.

This weekend, he has a crucial role to play in the doubles rubber with Eduardo Schwank which is the critical rubber for Argentina if they are to have any hope of winning this weekend. 

Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco will provide tough opposition for the Argentinian duo, although the Spaniards’ straight-sets defeat, in which they only won three games, by Michael Llodra and Tsonga in the semi-final will give the away side some hope.

However, the fact that Spain haven’t lost a home tie in the Davis Cup since 1999 sums up the enormity of the task facing Argentina this weekend.  It would be nothing short of unbelievable if Nadal, Ferrer, Lopez and Verdasco were to end up on the losing side in Seville.