If Spain has never really been in trouble against Austria and the United States surprised again by defeating France, the most emotional and tense ties were really those taking place in Argentina and Czech Republic, although for whole different reasons.
Argentina 4, Croatia 1
Don’t be fooled by the final score, as this was the most draining of this weekend’s ties, both emotionally for the fans, and emotionally and physically for the players. This tie and the one taking place in Prague brought us the most drama of the weekend, although they did so in a whole different manner.
On paper, before the start of the tie, we knew that Croatia would be a tough opponent but that Argentina should come out of it rather easily. After all, the head-to-head between all the players involved in the tie greatly favoured the local team, as well as the unconditional and incredible support of the Argentine crowd, which you can see here (video by BATennis), and of which both Marin Cilic and Ivo Karlovic expressed wonderment:
The Argentine players also admitted that during the difficult first four ties, it was the support of the crowd that kept them going and gave them energy, something they indeed needed.
The tie started with great anticipation but a lot of confidence, at least on the Argentine side. The supporters were ready to chant and cheer in the stadium, those at home as ready to encourage the men into a fight that seemed easy, at first sight. As David Nalbandian and Marin Cilic took the court following the usual emotional tie-opening ceremonies, most were confident that it would be tight, but that Nalbandian would prevail in the end.
Everyone ended up wrong. The ultimate Davis Cup warrior that is David Nalbandian had a rare off weekend, which translated into a lot of irregularity in his play (more than usual, could we say). On the other side of the net, it was as ugly, as Marin Cilic was just about as erratic, which translated in a very difficult match to watch, a horror fest that lasted 5:09.
Contrary to what we usually say in such long matches, this was a match no one deserved to win rather than one no one deserved to lose, as both players hit a combined total of 241 unforced errors (128 for Cilic and 113 for Nalbandian). After 5:09 of sheer torture for the fans, Cilic gave Croatia the first point of the tie with a 5-7 6-4 4-6 7-6(2) 6-3 win. This was only Nalbandian’s sixth Davis Cup loss.
Pure drama that was only the beginning for the Argentine team this weekend as during the match, rumours started fast circulating about Argentina’s no 1 player, Juan Martín del Potro, being sick, vomiting, having an allergic reaction, and that they were readying Juan Mónaco to take his place against Ivo Karlovic in the second rubber. I quickly double checked the sickness rumours with a journalist friend on location, only to have it confirmed.
Sheer worry for all who knew about it, which was fast spreading and added drama to the one that was being played on the court of Parque Roca. Finally, shortly after Nalbandian was broken in the final set, confirmation came from the Asociación Argentina de Tenis (AAT) that del Potro would indeed play his rubber against Karlovic, albeit sick, but feeling better than earlier so able to take the court.
At the image of Roger Federer in Indian Wells, del Potro played incredible tennis while being obviously diminished, taking a little over two hours to level the tie 1-1 with a 6-2 7-6(7) 6-1 win over Karlovic.
After the match, Delpo admitted that in view of Nalbandian’s defeat, captain Martín Jaite asked him to play, something he would not have done had Nalbandian won the first rubber. This time, the Tandil native took one for the team, as he clearly was unwell and even suffered from yet another nosebleed during the match, but still gave his all to ensure that Argentina’s hopes remained after the first day.
As for Nalbandian, shortly after the match, word came from his team that he was suffering from another left hamstring injury, which would have explained his performance, something he was quick to deny, talking only about wind and fatigue (the former also quite obvious) and laying the blame on journalists for relaying false information (although the information did come from his team and the journalists only did their job by telling them).
In the end, what could have been a very dark Friday ended up with just a lot of drama and a levelled tie between the two countries. Del Potro had saved the day for Argentina and was surely becoming again a national hero after having been trashed by many just a couple of months ago.
Saturday: the most painful doubles rubber
Shortly before the start of the doubles rubber, word came from Croatian captain Zeljko Krajan that Ivo Karlovic would take Lovro Zovko’s place at Marin Cilic’s side. As a friend of mine rightfully pointed out when the official news came out, Krajan had decided to put all the meat in the BBQ (translated by me from the typically Argentine expression “poner toda la carne en el asador”). No changes on the Argentine side, as David Nalbandian and Eduardo Schwank would play this pivotal rubber.
Just as it happened in Bamberg, it became clear from the beginning of the match that for the Argentine team, it would be a fight of all instants. And just like it happened in Bamberg, it also became quickly clear that Schwank may have to take the team’s lead, at least at the beginning of the match, as it was obvious that Nalbandian was not playing at 100%.
The Croatian pair, on the other hand, started the match strongly and quickly came back from an early break before taking an advantage they wouldn’t relinquish, taking the first set 6-3. They continued to fight a mighty fight, but so did Nalbandian and Schwank, which gave a very tight second set, taken 8-6 in a topsy-turvy tiebreak.
Argentina seemed to finally be on track, to the relief of their many supporters, quickly taking the advantage in the third set and never letting go of it, breaking twice to take a two-set lead.
The joy was, however, short-lived on the Argentine side, as the Croatians hadn’t said their last word in a tightly disputed fourth set that left everyone on the edge of their seats. Both teams were very erratic, but several double faults at key moments from David Nalbandian gave Karlovic and Cilic the advantage, smothered by Argentina each time, except in the highly disputed tiebreak, taken 8-6 by Croatia. The match would be decided in a fifth set.
With tension at its highest, at Parque Roca as well as for all who were following the match, Croatia had the advantage of serving first in this decisive set, which would put Argentina with their back to the wall from 4-5 onwards. This was, however, a great set played by Schwank and Nalbandian, as they saved the only break point they faced and timely broke Karlovic’s serve to give themselves a 7-6 lead and an opportunity for Eduardo Schwank to serve out the match.
Under the cheers of the crowd after each of his service points, Schwank quickly gave the team three match point, but only needed the one to seal a 3-6 7-6(6) 6-3 6-7(6) 8-6 win and give Argentina a crucial 2-1 lead in a 5-hour doubles rubber that had the stadium exploding with joy when this extremely tense rubber was over.
Sunday: a hero named Delpo
With Marin Cilic having spent more than 10 hours on court in the first two days of the tie, it would apparently be an easy task for Juan Martín del Potro to close out matters in the fourth rubber. However, we know that in tennis, and especially in Davis Cup, such things as fatigue do not necessarily matter and Delpo was weary of his tricky opponent from the first moments of the match.
However, his strategy was clear: make his returning points as long as possible in order to tire Cilic even more than he already was, while keeping his own service games as short as possible. It quickly proved to be the best strategy as the already exhausted Cilic could not do much against the constant pressure put on him by an indefatigable del Potro.
Playing inspired tennis, Delpo made rather short work of Cilic (who nonetheless fought until the very end), defeating his Croatian opponent 6-1 6-2 6-1, thus sealing Argentina’s passage to this year’s semi-finals. The crowd rightfully acknowledged Cilic’s efforts throughout the weekend with a heartfelt ovation before starting the celebrations.
Juan Mónaco concluded the perfect Argentine Sunday by defeating Antonio Veic, 6-1 6-1, and in the post-match celebrations that followed, with his usual class, he saluted the work of the ones in the shadow, namely Juan Ignacio Chela, always there even though not necessarily taking the court, and sub-captain Mariano Zabaleta.
Del Potro, after being crucified for not wanting to participate in the first tie in Germany by many who did not understand his motives, became once more the national hero he should not have ceased to be, taking the national team’s lead and showing that in order to win the Davis Cup, it is obvious that Argentina needs both him and David Nalbandian, especially if one ends up diminished as it was Nalbandian’s case this weekend. Delpo took the lead brilliantly to help the team winning.
More and more, the Argentine Davis Cup team is showing that they are becoming a very united team, and those who reported again (false) allegations of rifts between del Potro and Nalbandian surely missed their happy hug when Delpo clinched the tie, or their just as happy chatter on court during the celebrations that followed. I repeat it: hay equipo. And it’s the only way they’ll be able to go all the way.
Sunday’s matches were a perfect ending to what had started as a dramatic weekend for Argentina, and they will receive the Czech Republic in September for what promises to be another very tough tie.
To be continued…
… with the tie between the Czech Republic and Serbia, as well as the teams who will take part in the World Group playoffs in September.
I would also like to thank my friends from BATennis and my friend Hans Ruhle for allowing me to use their material to illustrate this article. Gracias, chicos!