The 2008 Davis Cup final, pitting perennial contender Spain against a strong Argentina squad, was to be the perfect finale to an amazing year—a year that saw two first-time Grand Slam champions hailing from the small nation of Serbia in Novak Djokovic and Ana Ivanovic; the first back-to-back French Open-Wimbledon winner on the men's side since Bjorn Borg and subsequent ascendancy by long-time #2 Rafael Nadal to the world #1 ranking; the resurgence of the Williams sisters, too long from the top of the game, competing for the Wimbledon title; the inevitable but still unexpected fall from the mountaintop of Roger Federer, who had dominated his sport for four years and 237 consecutive weeks; the slow and steady rise to the WTA #1 ranking by Jelena Jankevic, a woman who had yet to challenge for a Slam title; and the emergence of a slew of relative newcomers on both the women's and mens tour, all ready and eager to shake up the established pecking order.
Among these newcomers is Juan Martin Del Potro, a lanky giant of a man not yet of drinking age but full of promise. Del Potro went on a 23-match tear over the summer, garnering four straight titles along the way. So, when the Spanish team found itself after the Paris Masters Series event without its stalwart, world #1 Nadal, out with tendinitis of the knee, the Name Del Potro suddenly loomed ever larger. Alongside David Nalbandan, an already proven warrior known for his late-season heroics and fondness of indoor venues, Del Potro began to look like the guy who would help Team Argentina—four times a finalist without a Cup to show—achieve her destiny.
Friday, the first day of play, saw David Nalbandian take on David Ferrer in the first rubber and Del Potro battle with Feliciano Lopez in the second. Nalbandian secured the early lead for Argentina with a straight-sets win over Ferrer, and it looked as though the loss of Nadal and others to injury and the Argentine home-court advantage might be too much for a Spanish team that is otherwise deep in talent. Then a funny thing happened—Lopez knocked out Del Potro in four sets, two by tiebreak.
Suddenly, what seemed an inevitable 4-1 or 3-2 Argentina victory began to look like an upset was in the making. By evening up the score at 1-apiece, Spain goes into Day 2, the doubles, with the momentum and with confidence that the experienced and skillful doubles team of Lopez and Fernando Verdasco can put Spain out in front going into the third and final day.
In isolation, the Lopez win might not be so significant, but put into the context and flow of the Davis Cup format, it may very well turn out to be the deal-breaker (or sealer, if you've been betting on Spain all along). If he and Verdasco can win the doubles rubber, putting Argentina ahead 2-1 going into the last day's reverse singles matches, Spain will have to be considered the favorite, her odds greatly improved. Winning two straight singles matches on the final day is a daunting task, and one that will certainly cause the Argentine players to feel a great deal of pressure, given the pre-Cup expectations in the midst of Nadal's absence.
The Lopez singles win over Del Potro also has shown once again how crucial the doubles rubber is to a team's bid to win a Davis Cup title. It just cannot be overstated. Funny how Lopez figures in that one, too. We may just have a new Davis Cup hero by Sunday afternoon, and an unlikely one at that. A fitting end to an unpredictable year full of wondrous surprises.
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