When we catalog the many historic accomplishments of this decade, we’ll need a serious tennis historian to remind us of Spain’s run in Davis Cup. Roger Federer’s 15 majors in seven years is the most glamorous, and ridiculous, achievement, and it will deservedly overshadow everything else, even the Serena Slam of 2002-03 and Rafael Nadal’s 81 consecutive wins on clay. But Spain’s four Cups, won in 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2009, with a wide variety of heroes, is also a record worth noting. Since the advent of the World Group in 1981, only the U.S. and Sweden had won three titles in a single decade (the Swedes did it in both the 80s and 90s). No country had won four before this weekend.
Spain's latest final-round victories was also their most dominant. They surrendered just two sets in Barcelona in sweeping the Czech Republic 5-0. The tie again showcased the primary reason for the clay-loving nation’s success: Their depth. In last year’s final in Argentina, Spain’s singles wins came from an unlikely pair of saviors, Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco. This time around Lopez and Verdasco sat and watched on opening day as Nadal and David Ferrer did the honors. All four of these guys were following in a tradition established earlier in the decade by two other Spanish stars, Carlos Moya and Juan Carlos Ferrero. The latter, a former No. 1 and French Open champion, couldn’t make the first string this weekend.
It wasn’t a tie for the ages, but it did offer up its revealing moments. The peculiar pressure that comes with competing for your country can force the truth out of a player. Here’s what we learned about the guys who faced that pressure this past weekend.
Is Berdych a dumb player? You might think so from the way he squanders so many opportunities with badly botched errors. But you wouldn’t have known it from his pre-match comments about playing Nadal. “Soderling at Roland Garros showed us the way to play him on clay, and that he’s not unbeatable,” the Czech told a Spanish website. “You have to play fast, being aggressive from the first shot and taking the pace from the baseline. It’s a bit like what Davydenko did, first in Shanghai and later in London. But the statistic doesn’t escape me: Rafa has not lost a single Davis Cup match in Spanish territory. To beat him will require the combination that I play very well and he not so much.”
Talk about the best-laid plans going awry. Berdych can obviously bring a level headed and well-researched game plan to the court, but executing it over three sets is another matter. The crucial moment came when he was up 0-30 on Nadal’s serve at 5-4 in the first set. To that point, Berdych had been dictating play with the controlled aggression that he had talked about before the match—he was taking whatever chances he got, and it seemed about to pay off. Two points from losing the set, Nadal played a delicate, risky, backhand drop shot. Berdych ran it down and netted the reply. Rafa went into a long, slow, fist-pump, Berdych stared straight ahead in disbelief, and the match changed completely.
The worst part was the way the Czech’s demise began. He missed several returns of mediocre Nadal serves in that game, handing his opponent a lifeline right at the moment when he could have drowned. Rafa hadn’t won a set in weeks; if he'd lost the first one there, it would have been hard for him to get a foothold of self-belief. As it was, he broke Berdych in the next game, began to dictate his share of the rallies, and lost a total of two more games. Tennis is a sport of the moment: An intelligent plan of attack is important, but not nearly as important as the ability to cope when that plan doesn’t yield immediate results.
You could see from the beginning of his match with Berdych that this was a slightly different Nadal than the one who had been run off the court in London. It wasn’t that Nadal was playing well to start—he was still hitting balls inside the service line and shanking backhands. And it wasn’t that he looked all that much more confident. What was different was that he looked patient. Nadal looked resolved, no matter how the match started, to weather the storm and give himself the best chance he could to win. He looked ready to hang around, and that’s about all anyone could have hoped considering how poorly he’d been playing.
Nadal’s patience was rewarded. Getting no momentum from his own shot-making—Rafa wasn’t even attempting winners to start—he worked hard to generate it on his own. His first-pumps were forced, but rarely have they seemed so useful to his mindset. By the end of the first set, they’d begun to carry over to his play, as he finally stepped forward and used his crosscourt forehand to take the initiative in points. Nadal kept doing it, and while he never reached his top form, he found the corners again with both of his ground strokes. That’s where his best game always begins. What’s the lesson here? Just as you have to be patient with shot selection, you have to be patient with your self-confidence. Nadal knows you can’t manufacture good form, but he gave it a chance to come back, and it did.
Do you think Ferrer is boring, a style-less grind, a man who approaches tennis as nothing more than job to get done? I’ll admit that a match-up between him and a fellow baseliner like, say, Robby Ginepri, will never stay saved in my DVR. But put him across from a creative attacker like the man he faced on Friday, Radek Stepanek, and Ferrer can almost seem like a showman.
My particular appreciation for the guy is not aesthetic; it comes mainly from my experience as a player. What I like about him, and what eventually wore down Stepanek, is his ability to hit the most economical—some might call it blue-collar—backhand imaginable with absolute precision and sure-handedness. Where his forehand is just a little too plainly utilitarian for me, his two-hander is a thing of underrated beauty. He can take it either direction with pace. He can put it a centimeter above net level when his opponent rushes forward. And when the fifth-set got tight on Friday, it only looked more impenetrable. Yes, flair and creativity are what we hope to see in tennis. But for anyone who has ever struggled to hit the ball in the court five times in a row, ironclad accuracy can be awe-inspiring as well. Ferrer gave it to us at the highest level, under the greatest pressure. It was nice to see this workhorse rewarded for it with the biggest win of his unsung career.
I’ve always loved seeing what the Worm will come up with next. What kind of angle will he create with his next volley? What head-scratching, rhythmically challenged maneuver will he use to celebrate it? But after Friday I have to believe that his antics only hurt him in the end. After looking nothing less than Federer-esque for two sets against Ferrer, Stepanek’s game dropped a notch while his opponent finally worked out his nerves. But rather than push hard to the finish line, Stepanek kept going to the drop shot well and kept finding new ways to preen. He seemed as caught up in his own act as he was in the match.
No part of Davis Cup benefits more from the team setting than doubles. I don’t watch much of it otherwise, so I’m always pleasantly surprised by its entertainment value in DC. If nothing else, it shows just how versatile today’s pros can be when they have to be—who knew Fernando Verdasco owned such a spectacular topspin lob? He never gets a chance to hit it in singles.
The guy who was most surprising to me on Saturday was Lopez. While Verdasco and Berdych played singles on a doubles court, blasting ground strokes at each other, Lopez held up the cause of classic touch-based dubs. The lob-volley is not a shot you see often, especially over an opponent who’s 6-foot-5, but Lopez could place it an inch from the baseline in his sleep.
Davis Cup may reveal certain truths about players, but it still comes across as a strange alternative tennis universe. The vast majority of the time, the pro game is about opposition. You see two guys, and they’re competing against each other; there’s no place for comradeship, which is such a big part of the team-sport experience. Suddenly, in Davis Cup, comradeship gets equal time with competition. We see Nadal cheering himself hoarse, Ferrer sharing a laugh with Ferrero, Costa lending fatherly support.
We know athletes like to play on teams—I've always loved Magic Johnson’s reason for coming back to the Lakers in the mid-90s, years after he’d retired: He just wanted to be with the guys, he said. Tennis players may like teams even more, because we rarely get to be part of them, we rarely get to experience anything other than opposition when we play. Yes, Spain’s historic Davis Cup dynasty was forged because they’ve had great players. But it couldn’t have been sustained if they—their superstar, Nadal, included—hadn’t loved the comradeship enough to keep coming back for it year after year. Look what they did when it was all over: They packed themselves together and jumped deliriously, just like a winning soccer team. For every tennis player not born in the United States, that must be the ultimate dream come true.