Amid debates about its popularity and relevance, and how troublesome it is to accommodate, the Davis Cup proved once more that it hits the spot few other tournaments can reach.
The final event of the tennis calendar was intensified by an Argentina team wanting this trophy perhaps more than any other nation, having been thwarted in three previous finals.
It added spice that they had fallen, at home, to a Nadal-less Spain, the last time they met—and that Spain was this time the hot favorite, back on home soil, on clay.
It injected some hope that Argentina fielded its three top players fit and injury-free and that Spain’s two top-five stars were bone-weary from their campaign at the World Tour Finals. The first of them, though, Rafael Nadal, had been here before and had proved his worth before.
He pointed out in London, “I’m lucky: If I’m not in the right condition, the captain can choose another player,” but all his compatriots—and there are six in the top 30 alone—knew that he would be first choice.
The six-time French Open champion has only ever lost one best-of-five-sets match on clay, against Robin Soderling in 2009, and his Davis Cup record was 18 wins to just one loss that came in his first ever match, as a 17-year-old, on his worst surface, indoor carpet.
Nadal had also tasted this atmosphere before. Spain is the most successful country of recent years. All four of its titles have come this millennium, including three in the last four years, and Nadal played a decisive part in two of them.
In 2009, he was part of a 5-0 whitewash of the Czech Republic, but his most dramatic role came in 2004 when more than 27,000 people saw Spain defeat the U.S.A., 3-2, in the magnificent Estadio Olimpico de Sevilla. The young Nadal beat Andy Roddick in four intense sets in the very stadium where he opened Spain’s campaign this year.
And if there were any doubts about his form after leaving the World Tour Finals at the round-robin stage, they were very quickly dismissed.
Nadal kick-started the drama in his opening match against great friend, clay expert and in-form Argentine, Juan Monaco.
Monaco, ranked 26th, was an awkward opponent: All of his titles have come on clay. The nimble Argentine had an unexpectedly strong end to his season, reaching his first final in almost two years at the Valencia 500, where he beat three home favorites—among them David Ferrer. He also went on to score wins over Gilles Simon and Mardy Fish in Paris, so he was an in-form player and the least match-rusty on the squad.
He also happened to be best friends with Nadal, which gave the Spaniard a dilemma—for a short time, anyway. “I always want my colleagues and my friends to do well in life," said Nadal. "I hope that they don’t win this one, though, if possible, please. They can win next year. But of course I wish them the best of luck, that’s true.
Naturally, they didn't win this one. Nadal ripped up the Seville court as though it was Roland Garros in June and he was playing for the French title.
But his resounding victory, for the loss of just four games, was merely an appetizer.
Nadal was not the only Spaniard showing signs of tiredness. His teammate, world No. 5 David Ferrer, was also a veteran winner in Davis Cup, with a 16-4 win-loss record and no losses in clay rubbers.
But also, like Nadal, he had put in one of the longest seasons on the tour, with 77 matches in his legs this year, plus several Davis Cup matches—including two remarkable wins over Roddick and Fish on the Americans’ hardcourt home patch in July.
Ferrer explained just how tired he was after falling in the semifinals of the World Tour Finals, saying, “I am tired. I am tired, sure. I’m very tired…I want to stop but I can't because I have the Davis Cup. But I’m really tired.”
He was drawn against Argentina's top player, Juan Martin del Potro, in what always looked like a very tight contest: They had two wins apiece in previous matches but had never met on clay. And it was considered a must-win match for del Potro once the form of Nadal became apparent in the first rubber.
It turned into a marathon of racing feet, huge forehands and heart-bursting spirit in a near-five-hour contest between the hustling Spaniard and the big man from Argentina.
The colors went to Ferrer—6-2, 6-7, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3—but the men scored exactly the same number of points: 149.
Not only did Ferrer take Spain to a 2-0 lead, however, but he took a heavy toll from the del Potro legs.
Saturday’s doubles was a fascinating matchup.
For Spain, Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco were an experienced pairing; but both individually and as a duo, they had blown hot and cold in 2011.
For Argentina, Eduardo Schwank, who only embarked on Davis Cup competition in 2010, paired up with the experienced and charismatic David Nalbandian, a man who has often found his best in Davis Cup competition. Nalbandian, who turns 30 on the day that 2012 dawns, had played 21 ties and won 34 rubbers for Argentina and has never made a secret of his desire for this trophy above all.
Not only did the Argentine duo sail to an easy three-sets win, but Nalbandian played with the kind of confidence and finesse that made him hot favorite to play the final rubber against Ferrer should the tie extend to a fifth and deciding match.
His hope of doing so, however, depended on teammate del Potro beating Nadal.
So, in front of Carlos Moya, the winner of the decisive rubber for Spain in 2004, Manolo Santana, who scored the most wins in the most ties of any Spaniard, and the king of Spain, del Potro faced the most daunting of prospects.
After his energy-sapping loss to Ferrer on Friday, he needed to keep the match against Nadal short, and that meant stepping into the court to take the ball early. He tried to do just that as he opened serve, attacked the net on the first two points only to be passed by Nadal. Two double-faults at deuce handed an opening break to the Spaniard.
In the second game, the tactics were reversed, with Nadal attacking the net and del Potro resisting from the baseline. It may have seemed counter-intuitive for the Argentine, but it worked, and del Potro broke back to win the first of six straight games and the first set, 6-1.
His weapon was his merciless and jaw-dropping forehand, a shot hit flat and hard to within inches of the baseline. He hit 18 outright winners in those seven games, 14 of them from the forehand. Nadal managed just three.
Already the crowd was boiling over and, despite their relatively smaller numbers, the Argentines were as vociferous as their hosts. Not for the first time, the umpire struggled to contain the noise.
Del Potro continued to dominate at the start of the second set, breaking Nadal to love and leading 40-0 on his own serve before Nadal regained his battered concentration and broke back—his first game since the first of the match.
He made his first hold and maintained the advantage throughout the set to level proceedings, 6-4.
It felt like the death knell for the Argentine.
The power subsided in his forehand, his serve yielded barely any free points—indeed he fired only three aces in the match. His cause was further hindered by thigh strapping that gradually crept down his leg, forcing him off court at the end of the set for running repairs. They didn’t help.
Nadal, now with the signature “strut” and with his fellow players orchestrating the crowds to a fever pitch of support, surged to 3-0 in the third. Not until the fifth game did he lose a point on serve for six service games—26 straight points.
He broke again in the sixth with a remarkable running forehand, taken airbound, that curved out of court and back into the extreme corner for an outright winner and a 6-1 set.
Nadal opened the fourth set with another break, and it all looked done and dusted until, in the fourth game, del Potro rediscovered his first-set forehand, broke back and found himself serving for the set.
But pressure took hold and the Argentine produced his first double fault since the first set. They headed to a tie-breaker on the stroke of four hours, which ended in a flurry of errors from del Potro and a 7-0 whitewash for Nadal.
Never before had Nadal played the rubber that sealed the Davis Cup, but this time he fell to the red dirt in joy. Spain won this most coveted of titles for a fifth time and Argentina—turning a blind eye to the song’s advice—cried.
Never has Nadal’s smile been bigger—not surprising in his first taste of victory since he played on his golden surface in the final of the French Open. And it caps another great year in the life of a man who is his nation’s hero, with or without the No. 1 ranking or the other three Grand Slam titles.
Then, in the midst of this triumph, came the announcement from Nadal that he will not play Davis Cup next year so that he can focus on the Olympics and, likely as not, that No. 1 crown.
For drama, for spectacle, for atmosphere and for quality, this was a fitting end to the tennis season. And with Nadal already raring to go next year, Roger Federer back to No. 3 after an unbroken three-tournament run and Novak Djokovic the outstanding player of 2011, things are shaping up very nicely for 2012.
And perhaps Argentina will get one more stab at a Nadal-less Spain next year, on home ground, in pursuit of their Holy Grail.