by Stephanie Neppl
Words won’t do justice to try and convey what the atmosphere of a Davis Cup Final feels like. Even an hour before play started at Estadio Olímpico de Sevilla on Friday afternoon, the Argentinean and Spanish chants had begun and they would only intensify through the day and what would become a late night.
This was never going to be a quiet affair, but Spain versus Argentina was beyond loud. The crowd was boisterous, it was mischievous, it was ecstatic. Drums, brass instruments and horns were allowed inside the venue and they were used often, and not always appropriately.
When the ceremony began, I got goosebumps as the players were announced onto the court. Such applause, such appreciation and such idolatry particularly for David Nalbandian and Rafael Nadal. Rafa was of course the last of all players to be introduced and he was lovely in acknowledging his home country.
The first match, as expected, was very one-sided. Rafa has been a big match player for most of his career, and he had the massive advantage of playing on his favourite surface in his home country. It wasn’t at all that Juan Monaco played badly, Rafa was just vintage Rafa on clay. It is amazing to watch this Rafa – the way he moves the ball around, the great way he is able to defend. This is just one example why it is so hard to put Rafa away on clay:
In the end, there was nothing Monaco could do as the King of Clay put Spain up 1-0 with a comprehensive 6-1, 6-1, 6-2 win.
The second match would turn into those Davis Cup matches fans hear about and read about but few are lucky enough to see live. Well last night 26,000 of us got to witness Davis Cup greatness and the matchup was ideal. The young, tall Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro versus the veteran, much less statuesque, David Ferrer. Del Potro can annihilate the tennis ball but is not the greatest mover on court, particularly on clay. In the first set, Del Potro looked quite hopeless at times. His heavy shots were returned, and returned well over and over again and when he did venture to net things got ugly.
Somehow, Del Potro was able to turn the tide and starting hitting with much more conviction, actually winning some of the longer rallies that earlier he was unable to do. Del Potro would led two sets to one. The Spanish bench was looked tense, the Argentinean fans much more alive after they had little to cheer for in the first match. Alberta Costa was visibly tense and started to complain to chair umpire Carlos Ramos about the noise the Argentinean fans were making (particularly during a player‘s serve).
All bets were off by this stage of the match. The Spanish fans loudly cheered when Del Potro missed a first serve, horns were blown at will and the crowd was on its feet after most points. It’s no wonder the match lasted nearly five hours.
Most fans knew that if Argentina was to keep itself in this tie Del Potro would need to win his match in four. David Ferrer would be a clear favourite to win should the match go five sets – he is the epitome of fitness. And when Del Potro was broken to give Ferrer the fourth set, it all seemed over.
Ferrer raced to a 5-1 lead and though Del Potro won two straight games to stay alive, fatigue had set in and Ferrer would clinch a 2-0 lead for Team Spain with a 6-2, 6-7, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 victory.
The celebration by Ferrer, the Spanish team and the crowd was an explosion of joy. One can only imagine what emotions will be shown on court today should Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco clinch a Spanish victory in the doubles as they take on David Nalbandian and Eduardo Schwank today.
Stephanie Neppl is in Seville, Spain covering the Davis Cup Finals as a guest contributor for Tennis Grandstand. She is the author of the website I Have a Tennis Addiction and you can follow her on twitter @StephInNZ for further updates.
(Ferrer and stadium photos via Getty Images; Nadal via AP)
It’s the final Saturday of the Legg Mason Tennis Classic and that means only one thing: a showcasing of elite tennis as the final four men were in action for a spot in tomorrow’s finals. Surprise semifinalists Xavier Malisse and Marcos Baghdatis played each other in the day session as veteran David Nalbandian took on the last seeded player left in the draw, Marin Cilic. I also had a chance to catch up with Tomas Berdych and ask a few questions about his presser the other evening when he mentioned being frustrated with the tournament schedule and possibly not coming back next year. Let’s get into that and then the matches!
After Tomas Berdych’s doubles win today to go into the finals with partner Radek Stepanek, a few reporters were able to interview him in the players’ dining room before he left the site. The main topic at hand was whether any new developments occurred after his honest presser yesterday saying he may not come back to D.C. next year since he felt that he wasn’t treated well as a #1 seed. He responded that it was “just the next day” and nothing would really change, “there is still the year to go.” He seemed annoyed to address the topic as it still affected him. I asked if any tournament officials had contacted him to address his issue and he seemed to hesitate for a second. It could be a telling hesitation or a language barrier, but he simply said “No, nobody.” This was an interesting response because a reliable source had told me that the tournament director had spoken to him about it and essentially told him that it was unfortunate, but that all players had the same scheduling problems. I’m not sure if he chose to not reveal this in fear of further questioning or if it simply was not a big deal to him. Only time will tell, but I sincerely hope he comes back. He’s a powerful player to watch live.
But now, on to the tennis matches of the day!
The first matchup on stadium court was between two newly resurgent players on the ATP tour, Xavier Malisse and Marcos Baghdatis.
They had faced each other twice last year, both times on the Challenger-level and both times Baghdatis had prevailed in straight sets. While each executes well from behind the baseline, Malisse has a tendency to venture too far back into the court and Baghdatis tends to stay near the baseline. Baghdatis plays smart tennis and knows how to play the important points well. He has a compact backhand and changes the movement of the ball well, easily going from defensive to offensive, throwing his opponent off. His forehand is quite stiff and he doesn’t accelerate the ball well, but he has a little more variety in his shots than Malisse. Malisse’s strong point is his topspin forehand and a flick of his wrist speeds the ball up even more. He plays a very high-risk game going for winners and uses his backhand more to setup his forehand than as a weapon itself. The match depended mostly on service points won and who could dictate play more.
In the first set, Malisse held his serve in the first game but then lost the next two, finding himself down 1-5. There were glimmers of great tennis from Malisse as he fired forehands past a scrambling Baghdatis, but his winners to unforced errors were 15 to 27. He was sending balls well beyond the baseline or throwing them straight into the net. Malisse’s composure only slightly changed when he was broken to go down 1-4 and you could sense his helplessness. He, however, rebounded in his next service game to bring it to 2-5. There were several netcord encounters that saw the ball flicking off of the net and bouncing high into the intended court. During one of these points, Baghdatis was on the receiving end shuffling for the short ball. He followed through, and with exceptional body control put away a winner crosscourt. Although Baghdatis may carry around a few extra pounds not being as lean as other top pros, he nevertheless is quick on his feet and reads the ball well. It was clear that he was also staying right on top of the baseline for most points dictating play and thus pulling Malisse farther and farther back making him play defensively. In the final game of the set, Baghdatis hit an ace and followed it up with three more easy points to seal it 6-2.
The second set lasted twice as long with neither player being able to break the other’s serve until the 11th game of the set. Malisse continued playing the same tennis: taking the ball late, keeping well behind the baseline and not approaching the net and changing it up. Baghdatis was attacking the ball and smashing winners away with his backhand, which was really working today. At 2-all, Malisse finally followed his shot to the net for two points in a row and won both times, to go up 3-2. He, however, stopped approaching the net after those points! Malisse instead kept probing Baghdatis’ forehand but to no avail. At 4-2 for Baghdatis, Malisse sent a shot behind Baghdatis to his forehand side and Baghdatis changed his footing too quickly. He tweaked his left ankle and fell to the ground grabbing it. Almost nobody moved except Malisse. He right away yelled across the net: “Ice? Do you need ice?” He hurried over to the ice bin behind his seat and pulled out a bag and ran it over to Baghdatis who took it willingly (see photo).
Words were quickly exchanged between the two before the trainer appeared on court. In the midst of his injury, Baghdatis’ ‘foe’ was the first to respond. Luckily, Baghdatis got his ankle taped up and continued play. His ankle was tested on the very next point. It was a long rally but he won it with no sign of discomfort or limitation in movement. He went on to fire two aces in the tiebreaker and take the second set 7-6(4). Even though Baghdatis’ first serve percentage was lower than Malisse’s, he was winning 87% of the points. His return game was also more effective, pressuring Malisse until the last point. Baghdatis fell on his back in joy and as is his custom, kissed the court.
As I had gotten accustomed to players bailing on the press conference after a loss, I was surprised to see Malisse willing to and with a smile. It might seem strange to be optimistic about a loss, but then again, it was a loss in the semifinals of a 500-level tournament. He spoke that Baghdatis “served better, especially on the important points.” He remarked that he felt like he played really well all week so he can’t complain. He’s also happy because his ranking takes him to #50 in the world come Monday morning. He also learned earlier today that he was given a ‘special exemption’ into the Rogers Cup held next week in Toronto, Canada. The ATP rule allows any player who plays a semifinal or higher in the weekend prior to a qualifier event he is entered it, to be granted a special exemption into the draw because they can’t be present to play the qualifier. He was also asked about Baghdatis’ injury in the second set. He said that he was aware that Baghdatis has been injured before and didn’t want it to get more inflamed, so his natural reaction was to help him. “When I gave him the ice he said he will probably be OK.” He said it was helpful knowing this because mentally you begin wondering if he’s going to be OK, or stop play: “It put my mind at ease.”
Baghdatis came into the interview room casually, wearing his ‘Love Cyprus’ kit and old Adidas shoes. He felt that he had played really smart and he was “proud of that.” He mentioned twice that he was “fitter than Malisse” and was able to “play the right shot at the right time,” taking Malisse’s angles away from the forehand. He also commented on the ankle saying he would rather have been cautious than gotten up and played right away. It was uncomfortable for a bit, but he feels good currently and hopes the same for tomorrow. He said that he knows Malisse very well from the tour and that it was typical sportsmanship from him. He’s done it before but some guys wouldn’t. “It doesn’t happen every day” for players to reach out like that. He feels there are “no limits” to how much he or any other player can improve and that he tries to “fight for every match.”
The second semifinal featured David Nalbandian and Marin Cilic.
The key for Cilic was holding his serve, moving well and attacking the ball. Even with his 6’6” stature, he plays a baseline game but is very flexible and can get low on his backhand side. Nalbandian, on the other hand, needed to keep his return game high, attack more cleanly with his forehand and not get fatigued.
In the first set, it took Nalbandian just one game to warmup and find his rhythm, unlike last night where it took him the entire first set. Nalbandian was putting balls away from both wings exceptionally well and his return game stayed in the upper 60s. Nalbandian moved Cilic well laterally, causing him to hit most balls off-balance and gave Cilic only two winners against seventeen unforced errors. Truly, most of those unforced errors were a results of Nalbandian’s impeccable placement and angle on the ball, pressuring Cilic. Cilic could do nothing to keep the points short and prevail as Nalbandian was winning all rallies longer than four shots. Nalbandian sent a crosscourt forehand winner that clocked in at 98 MPH and then went on to break Cilic’s serve and take the first set 6-2 in just 36 minutes.
The second set took a similar tone. Cilic didn’t change his strategy and barely came up to the net. Nalbandian took advantage of his opponent, gained even more confidence and his forehand became lethal. The match came to a close as Cilic sent a backhand sailing into the net to give Nalbandian the win, 6-2 in the second. The statistics are even more staggering in the winners to unforced errors ratio. Cilic had only six winners to 27 unforced errors, while Nalbandian had fourteen winners to twelve unforced errors. David Nalbandian is quickly proving to be a nightmare for players and it will be interesting to see where he falls in the draw at the US Open once again.
Cilic made his way into the press conference subdued and quiet. This tends to be his personality typically, win or lose. He was quick to admit that his serve was “not good” and that he wasn’t aiming well. He felt that Nalbandian took away his setup time for shots since he takes the ball so early. When asked about how well Nalbandian was returning, Cilic joked that he “can’t count on my hand how many returns he missed.” He feels that Nalbandian anticipates the ball well and spatially recognizes where it will go. He was happy though, to improve on his showing here from last year, losing in the first round, especially since he hadn’t played a tournament in the last 3-4 weeks. He felt that it was a good gauge of where he stands and what he can improve on. When asked about not traveling with his coach, but only his oldest brother, he replied that he doesn’t always want “someone telling me what to do.” Sometimes he wants to figure it out for himself. He did say he will reunite with coach Bob Brett for the next three tournaments in Toronto, Cincinnati and the US Open.
Nalbandian came in smiling, clearly on cloud nine. After the first question was asked, he answered: “I’m playing good all week. … When I’m playing this good, it’s tough for anybody [to beat me].” He said the main difference from last night’s slow start to today’s rapid start was that he mentally got himself to “push harder from the beginning.” He was very confident in his match tonight and again mentioned that when he serves well, returns well, hits off both sides well and finds the tricky angles, it’s hard to be his opponent and come out victorious. When asked about Baghdatis, whom he plays tomorrow in the finals, he replied that “we know each other” and we have “similar styles of play. … I must keep pushing and playing well.”