Nalbandian hammers nail in Aussie coffin
In the end - and the end came very quickly - David Nalbandian had the last laugh, Argentina's tennis ironman delivering on his promise to lead his country to a crushing victory over Australia.
After Jose Acasuso returned to complete a 1-6 6-4 4-6 6-2 6-1 victory over Lleyton Hewitt in the second singles rubber, Nalbandian teamed with Agustin Calleri to bury Australia for the second year running with a 6-4 6-4 7-5 whipping of Wayne Arthurs and Paul Hanley.
The doubles triumph at Parque Roca Stadium gave Argentina an unassailable 3-0 advantage in the claycourt semi-final and its first Davis Cup final in 25 years.
Inspired by a capacity crowd of 14,000 mostly partisan fans, including a shirt-waving and at times delirious-looking Diego Maradona, Nalbandian had put the hosts up 1-0 on Saturday when he outclassed Mark Philippoussis 6-4 6-3 6-3.
However rain and fading light forced an early finish to the opening day, with Acasuso leading Hewitt 4-0 in the fifth set.
Before the tie, Nalbandian, who had won three rubbers to pilot Argentina to a 4-1 success over Australia in a grasscourt quarter-final last year in Sydney, had somewhat arrogantly dismissed the visiting team's chances of gaining revenge in Buenos Aires.
But the world No.4 proved true to his word.
"I wasn't surprised by this 3-0 win," Nalbandian said after enhancing his already impeccable claycourt record in Davis Cup to 10 wins from 10 matches on the slow surface, and to 18-3 overall in the competition.
"When I talk, I do it."
Argentina will play either Russia or the USA in the December 1-3 final and will be attempting to win the Cup for the first time.
The South Americans have only once before made the final, a Guillermo Vilas-inspired Argentine outfit falling 3-1 to the US in Cincinnati in 1981.
Australia's defeat left captain John Fitzgerald staring down the barrel of back-to-back 5-0 drubbings in Buenos Aires, having been whitewashed in the first round four years ago with a depleted line-up devoid of Hewitt and Philippoussis.
"The court was pretty slow and tough for us. It's difficult to come here and win in these conditions because Argentina have a world-class team," Fitzgerald said.
He felt Hewitt's first five-set loss in more than three years knocked the stuffing out of Australia's campaign.
"Lleyton's record over five sets in the last year or two is quite phenomenal. He doesn't lose too many when he goes to the fifth so, at two sets to one up, you'd back him in.
"So that was very much a difficult one for us to recover from."
Acasuso was glad he wasn't armed with the knowledge of Hewitt's run of 11 straight five-set triumphs that had included the scalps of Nalbandian, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Juan Carlos Ferrero and, most recently, French young gun Richard Gasquet at this month's US Open.
From 2-1 and a break point up in the fourth set, Hewitt uncharacteristically dropped nine games in a row.
But the most successful singles player in Australian Davis Cup history offered no excuses, saying against a streaky player like Acasuso he simply had to take his half chances, and he wasn't able to do so.
With Hewitt the only Australian in the world's top 100 and the futures of 35-year-old Wayne Arthurs, the oldest player on the ATP Tour, and Philippoussis, 30 in six weeks and struggling to rediscover his once formidable game, this loss may signal the end of a golden era for Australia in Davis Cup.
Hewitt, Philippoussis, Pat Rafter, Arthurs and the Woodies - Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde - have helped Australia reach four finals, a semi-final and quarter-final - for two trophies - in the past eight years.
"We have had a good run from these guys. They've been a credit to themselves, to their families and to the sport," Fitzgerald said.
"Its tough on a world stage to compete and to get to this last four and to win a Davis Cup. We need to keep trying to develop players. Its not a short-term process."