Thursday, December 1, 2011

Is Argentina Capable of a Miracle?

Fernando Verdasco's summation of the mindset of his team as they prepare for the 2011 Davis Cup final is telling, and it bodes well for Spain. A healthy respect for the competition has never been a problem for the Spanish, and it has a lot to do with their success. "I think they [Argentina] will come with everything," he said. "I think it's going to be more difficult than everybody thinks."

Spain is, of course, well versed in Argentina's long and agonizingly fruitless quest for the Davis Cup; they were the thieves in the night that raced into Mar del Plata to dash the Argentine hopes of victory in 2008. To their credit, the Spaniards know to be prepared for a hungry bunch of unsung adversaries when the 99th Davis Cup final gets underway in Seville tomorrow.

In '08, Argentina was heavily favored to win its first title at home against a Spanish team that was without Rafael Nadal. But the pressure of making history amidst throngs of tennis-mad companeros proved to be to much for the squad. For the fourth time in four Davis Cup finals, the end was not pretty for Argentina. In fact, it was downright snarky, with Nalbandian and Del Potro giving each other the silent treatment as the final balls were struck. No doubt dejected about the loss, and wearied by the infighting, dejected captain Alberto Mancini resigned after the tie.

Such is Argentina's forlorn Davis Cup history, a prime example of the classic quandary: so close yet oh so far. How does a nation so steeped in brilliant tennis go without a Davis Cup title for all these years? There are 13 nations who have won the Cup. Spain, of course, broke through with a bang in 2000 and are now looking for their 5th title. Serbia won its first in remarkable fashion last year. South Africa has been crowned, as well as Croatia, the Czech Republic, and Italy.

It makes one wonder: Will the day ever come for Argentina? Not even Guillermo Vilas, the original King of Clay and the holder of tennis's longest winning streak of all-time, could take Argentina to the pinnacle of team tennis. Not that he didn't try. Vilas and Co. lost in the finals to the Americans in 1981, with John McEnroe proving to be too much for Vilas and Jose-Luis Clerc on the fast American hard courts.

But enough history. Let's talk about the here and now. Does Argentina have a shot?

At first glance the answer has to be HELL NO! When you consider the gory details of Spain's domination of this event since the turn of the century, it seems like impossible might be overstating Argentina's chances. Nadal has won 18 straight Davis Cup singles matches and has never lost one on clay; Ferrer has also never lost on clay, going 11-0. Meanwhile, Spain is in the midst of a 20-tie win streak at home that has now spanned over 10 years.

And what is Argentina's answer to that intimidating body of work? Honestly, they have none. At least on paper they don't. But when you take your microscope out and start to explore the psychological underbelly of this one, there are a few things that favor Argentina.

Backtrack, if you will, to Fernando Verdasco's comments at the top of the page. While it's prescient of he and his teammates to be aware of the fact that Argentina is a very dangerous squad to face, the fact that they do consider them dangerous means that they may believe it. The roles are reversed this year. As bad as Argentina wants this title, nobody expects them to get it, and they could benefit from the fact that they really and truly have nothing to lose.

Secondly, if there was ever a more perfect chance to exact revenge for that heartbreaking defeat in 2008, this would be that chance. We must consider the character of the Argentinians before we write them off in this one. Anybody who witnessed Juan Martin del Potro at his most inspired in 2009 knows that improbable victories are not at all out of the question.

Finally, I think it's fair to say that the Spanish, though they are taking painful strides to alleviate any worry about it, are still slightly fatigued from a long year in the trenches. Though it's hard to envision anybody outlasting David Ferrer in a battle of grinders, at this point, I'm not completely convinced that the Rafa who takes the court tomorrow is going to be the swift assassin that we have been accustomed to seeing.

That said, there may several ways to spin this thing, and some of them might make Argentina's chances look a little better than they actually are, but considering what's at stake, where they are playing and who they are playing, revenge might be a dish that never gets served.

Argentina will need a miracle to win this one, and that is a fact. For some reason (there is just something about Del Potro and, to a lesser extent, Nalbandian), I consider them to be capable of a miracle this weekend.

Though I don't expect it, I'm still excited to see them try.

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