On Their Day, On Their Clay

Davis Cup, Final

Day Three

Nadal d. del Potro, 1/6 6/4 6/1 7/6

The final stroke of the 2011 tennis season was a forehand winner by Rafael Nadal, and it won the Davis Cup for Spain. Neither occurrence is especially rare – he has hit over 18,000 forehand winners in his career (probably), and Spain has won this event three of the last four years – and so it seemed mainly noteworthy that they had yet to coincide. Somehow, this is the first time Nadal has ever taken the decisive rubber in a final. It was easily the most remarkable thing to happen this weekend.

Of course, we have grown so inured to the top players winning everything in a straight sets canter that when Juan Martin del Potro galloped to a 6/1 first set, the betting markets lurched. Hope and dread rose sharply in each respective camp. Holding David Nalbandian back for the fifth rubber suddenly seemed like a masterstroke, instead of what it actually was: a colossal shame. Del Potro broke to open the second set, and everyone except the professional tennis players lost their heads. The pros knew that while Nadal hardly ever loses a set on clay, when he does that doesn’t mean he’s at all close to losing the match. He didn’t look especially panicked, and del Potro wasn’t celebrating, since he knew retribution was coming. The second set remained tight, but Nadal broke back, and went on with it. Then in the third he briefly took flight. However, the fourth was all del Potro, until he served for it, and was broken. Nadal served for it, and was broken as well. The tiebreak ensued, and suddenly the towering Argentinian was truly broken, ruinously, not managing a point.

Del Potro looked forlorn, or in the weary place beyond it. His year had finished precisely as it unfolded: he had returned to place where he could challenge the best, but he could no longer seem to beat them. Nalbandian probably can’t either, but he still looked sorely and sourly unused. The Spanish players were of course delighted, but not excessively so. They’ve been here before. They didn’t shave their heads. Verdasco and Lopez hadn’t the good grace to look sheepish, although it’s important to bear in mind that the Davis Cup is not just about the final. It is a team event played over the whole year, and everyone’s contribution matters. These guys have thus been dead weight for a long time, and it is a measure of Spain’s regal dominance that it hasn’t mattered at all. Indeed, as with all kindly monarchs, we should instead appreciate Spain’s magnanimity in providing a pair of lovable jesters for the halftime entertainment.

But as ever for even the most benign of dictatorships, beneath the veneer of jolly ineptitude lurks the threat of lethal force. Its enforcers are Nadal and Ferrer, who have proved once more that although one good player might win a tie now and again, two great players will put it beyond doubt. Spain is once again the Davis Cup champions, as they should be. On their day, and on their clay, they are without question the finest tennis nation on Earth.

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