Dynastic Spaniards the team of the decade
Monday, December 7, 2009
By Peter Bodo
It's official: Spain has created a Davis Cup dynasty by dominating the international team competition for a good part of this decade. On Sunday, it became the first nation to successfully defend the Cup title since Sweden 11 years ago.
Spain has now won four of the nine Davis Cup competitions held in this first decade of the new century. The only other nation to win at least two is Russia. There's another year to go in the decade, and the only Spanish "veteran," at least age-wise, is Juan Carlos Ferrero -- who's been a sub for the past few years. The nucleus of Rafael Nadal, Fernando Verdasco, David Ferrer and Feliciano Lopez could remain intact for another five, six years.
Spain is not likely to make a serious run at the benchmark Davis Cup records of the U.S. and Australia, at least not for another, oh, 50 or so years. The U.S. has taken the Cup 32 times, while Australia has claimed it 28 times. Of course, those numbers are deceptive. They also make a powerful statement about the international growth of the game since the start of the Open era in 1968, and particularly in the past two decades.
Let's remember that before the single-elimination World Group system took effect in 1981, the Challenge Round format was used in Davis Cup. That is, the winning team didn't have to play at all until the final round of the following year, when it got to defend its title against whoever emerged from the yearlong competition among the other nations. For another, the pool of legitimate contenders was remarkably small. Few nations had even the two or three world-class players required to be a contender in Davis Cup. That, of course, has changed drastically.
In tennis, in general, anything before '68 can be described as the game's equivalent of B.C. (call it Before Connors); but in Davis Cup the equivalent of A.D. didn't even begin until the World Group format was adopted in '81.
Since then, the U.S. and Sweden have won the Cup six times each -- just two more wins than Spain has amassed this decade. The Swedes outperformed the Americans, who might have won more given the players they theoretically had at their beck and call: John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang. Australia has won the Cup four times in the WG era, despite a dramatic falloff in talent in the past three decades, so the Aussies at least get an A for effort.
There are two components in dynasty: talent and team spirit. The U.S. has had the talent in the WG era, but the team spirit hasn't always been there (the recent Andy Roddick years have been a high point, even though they've produced just one championship). Spain appears to have the talent as well as the team spirit, with Rafael Nadal at the point of the effort.
The question now is whether Nadal's allegiance to Davis Cup will remain undiminished as he tries to regroup for 2010. Even if he continues to burn for Davis Cup, it's not a slam dunk that Spain can add two more titles in the coming years to catch up with the U.S. and Sweden. But it helps Spain's cause that the U.S. and Sweden both have fallen on hard times, Australia is plunging even further off the radar, and the Russians are, to say the least, erratic.
Can Spain replace the U.S. as the New York Yankees of Davis Cup? Maybe not in a New York minute, but this team isn't short on talent -- or time.