Thrown Under The Hooves

Davis Cup, Final

Day One

Nadal d. Monaco, 6/1 6/1 6/2

Ferrer d. del Potro, 6/2 6/7 3/6 6/4 6/3

Juan Monaco, in what he himself declared to be the most important tennis match of his career, was thrashed by a magnificent Rafael Nadal in the opening rubber of the 2012 Davis Cup final. According to the official Spanish line, rehashed with soporific frequency all week, this outcome was not merely unthinkable, but apparently unsayable. Only yesterday, during the second or third of his daily press conferences, Nadal insisted that his best hope lay with solid preparation, and hoping the opposition didn’t ‘get inspired’. In other words, he’d do his best, but when you’re facing a guy like Monaco it really isn’t in your hands.

The issue isn’t that Nadal says these kinds of things, or even that he believes them. It’s that the people he proffers these opinions to accept them, carefully transcribe them into their notepads or notebooks, and faithfully report them. One hopes they don’t believe them, but the fact that they don’t question them – whether at the time or in the subsequent article – does make you wonder. But then, what would be the point? If someone was to snort derisively and demand whether Nadal actually believed what he was saying, the response would doubtless be curt, and heavily favour such phrases as ‘respecting your opponent’.

After the match (the most important of his career) Monaco looked crushed, but that’s ok. Crushing one’s opponent is considered fair play. Conversely, speaking honestly and realistically about the likelihood of it happening is considered disrespectful. By this measure, the betting markets showed Monaco no respect at all. A successful modest wager on Nadal losing would have fed an Argentinian family for a month.

Given the inevitability of the trampling, one questions the wisdom of throwing Monaco under el Toro’s hooves in the first place. The hope, presumably, was that the simple joy of the activity would occupy the bull for some time, and would preserve the constitutionally-delicate David Nalbandian for the doubles and, if necessary, the reverse singles. Argentina’s decision was thus a pragmatic one, based on the realistic assumption that Nadal would not be losing this match in a fit. It was a long shot, but all their shots are long this weekend. Facing Monaco instead of Nalbandian put the matter beyond whatever scant doubt there was, although it did mean Nadal had to toil harder to assert his underdog status, his sternest challenge so far.

For his part, David Ferrer stayed more in touch with reality, although he forwent no opportunity to evoke his exhaustion, and to point out that just last week he was playing indoors on an English hardcourt. Both points are undoubtedly true. However, the implication that the transition to clay presents a titanic challenge is generally overblown, and the reportage has largely granted Ferrer the breadth of his claims. Somehow it is forgotten that he was still playing tennis on a tennis court in London, and not performing the Ice Capades on a pogo stick. As for his tiredness, it is undeniable that he did play in London last week, and none of the Argentines did. But he only played four best-of-three matches, and only one of those went to a third set (6/1 to Berdych in about 20 minutes). It was with Ferrer’s putative exhaustion in mind that I watched him overrun Juan Martin del Potro in the second rubber today, easily outlasting his opponent as the match entered its fifth hour.

Del Potro looked as crushed as Monaco. Ferrer was exultant. Spain was 2-0 up, having overcome Nadal’s lingering Weltschmerz, Ferrer’s bone-weariness and the unbearable lightness of its own low expectations. The home team was on the cusp of snatching victory from the very jaws of victory.

Day Two

Nalbandian / Schwank d. Verdasco / Lopez, 6/4 6/2 6/3

Whatever else happens, we can at least commend Argentina for getting one decision right. Playing Nalbandian in the doubles was the right move. Spain’s decision to play Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco – the dreamboat duo that served them so ineptly in the semifinals – was more problematic. If Argentina goes on to win this final, these decisions will be widely lauded and reviled respectively. Of course, their chance of winning remains vanishingly small, but Nalbandian and Eduardo Schwank have at least given them something.  The snowflake has returned from hell, but now finds itself stranded in the Upper Gobi.

Mostly what they gave today was unflappable assurance and technical solidity. This was not virtuosic doubles by any stretch, but it was a remarkably accomplished performance given the circumstances. The Davis Cup ranks among Nalbandian’s most coveted cups, and Argentina was 0-2 down, in Spain. This pair had also never played together before. The pressure was immense. Verdasco and Lopez, by contrast, play together a lot, sometimes in doubles, but could not have looked less cohesive.

The psychic lacerations first inflicted on Verdasco by Milos Raonic have since grown infected and spread to his entire game. Even at his best, baseline slugging was basically all he had, but today he was easily out-rallied by Schwank. Against Nalbandian he looked completely helpless. He was no better at the net or overhead. Meanwhile, clay isn’t Lopez’ best surface, but his lefty serve is his best shot anywhere. Today he was out-served by both Argentinians.

Spain will doubtless regain the coveted cup tomorrow, thereby breaking Nalbandian’s heart. Verdasco and Lopez will be there ecstatically sprawled on the court with the rest, having failed to win a doubles set in the semifinal or final, proving emphatically that the world’s best Davis Cup squad is Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer and anyone.

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