Reasoning that tennis might well survive my inattention more or less intact, I had paid it little heed since the Tour Finals concluded last Sunday. Both the sport and I were doubtless better for it. Sadly, my indifference could not last. With the Davis Cup final between Spain and Argentina fast approaching, it seemed imperative that I get up to speed. Some light googling revealed that tennis had indeed survived, primarily because almost nothing had occurred. It’s true that both nations had been availing themselves of hourly press conferences, but, depressingly, this did not mean they had anything much to say. Still, I could not help but be intrigued when the very first search result, courtesy of USA Today, revealed that ‘Argentina is already putting the pressure on Spain, calling the defending champions …’
‘What?’ I demanded. ‘What did they call them?’ Pussies? Imperialist pig-dogs? Whining nancy-boys? Eagerly I clicked the link. It turned out that Argentina, or the tiny part embodied in its Davis Cup squad, had actually just called Spain ‘the favourites’. Oh dear: the dreaded F bomb. Well it had to happen eventually. The teams could only pussy-foot around each for so long before fangs were bared and claws extended. The accusation of favouritism is a serious one in professional tennis, which in terms of sledging clearly has some way to go to catch up with test cricket or UFC or the average retiree’s bridge evening. (I was immediately reminded of a list that appeared in a British newspaper last week, arranging Roger Federer’s verbal barbs at Andy Murray from over the years into a veritable litany of outrage. It featured such vicious broadsides as: ‘Would you consider Andy Murray to be one of your main rivals?’ ‘No.’)
Obviously Spain are the favourites, given that they field a superior team, have won the event more than anyone else recently, and are playing at home on clay. Naturally, you wouldn’t know it from the Spanish team’s tediously over-rehearsed statements, which they somehow delivered with straight faces. Here’s world No.5 David Ferrer: ‘I’m very tired. I want to stop, but I can’t because I have the Davis Cup. It is a disadvantage because we’ve played more matches. We’ll be more tired. We have to change now to clay courts. The Argentinian guys, they were practising two weeks ago on clay.’ Or how about Rafael Nadal, heavily draped in excessive humility: ‘They have great players, all of which stand out on the circuit, so the only thing we can do is concentrate on reaching the final as prepared as possible and then hope our rivals don’t have an inspired weekend.’ That’s right: Nadal – probably the greatest clay courter in history – is actually insisting his only chance lies in hoping Juan Monaco isn’t inspired.
The commitment to achieving perfect underdog status has by now become so encompassing as to defy reason. Or physics, since the crushing gravity of this much self-deprecating horse shit will collapse in on itself to form a singularity, forming an event horizon beyond which nothing of the slightest interest can escape. I won’t pretend for a second that Team Argentina is behaving any better, though they are at least justified in asserting their opponent’s superiority, since it is beyond reasonable question. Neither Nadal nor Ferrer have ever lost a singles match on clay in Davis Cup play.
So the week’s build-up has led to nothing more than this. Two groups of grown men who have been so conditioned to cherish their own inferiority that they apparently cannot otherwise compete. The situation was delicately poised, until Spanish great Manolo Santana, who learned his craft long before the image doctors took charge, went and spoiled it all by telling the truth: ‘We [Spain] are superior on clay, grass, hard courts and, if necessary, even on roller skates.’
The Spanish team’s sudden anxiety was palpable. It was exactly the kind of wild, unvetted remark that risked firing the terrifying Juan Monaco up. Then who knows what might happen? Nadal beware.