There was only one storybook ending to the 2016 Davis Cup final – and it very nearly didn’t happen.
With losses in its four previous finals and team leader Juan Martin del Potro on the mend after three left wrist surgeries and major time off the tour over the past three years, the Argentines were sentimental favourites with most impartial observers.
And as if a past history of failure wasn’t enough, Argentina would have to win its first Davis Cup playing all four of its 2016 ties away from home.
It all began inauspiciously in the opening round in March on an indoor hard court in Gdansk, Poland, without the eventual heroes of the final weekend – del Potro and Federico Delbonis – even being on the team. It was Guido Pella and Leonardo Mayer that led the way to a 3-1 victory over the Poles.
In July in Pesaro, Italy on clay, Delbonis gave notice that he would be a figure to reckon with in 2016 when he upset veteran Andreas Seppi in the first round, got help from a doubles win by Pella and del Potro and finished off the 3-1 tie with a 6-4, 7-5, 3-6, 7-5 victory over Fabio Fognini.
Perhaps destiny started to come into clearer focus when del Potro beat Andy Murray 6-4, 5-7, 6-7(5), 6-3, 6-4 in the first match of the semifinal on an indoor hard court in Glasgow, Scotland, in September in a remarkable five hours and seven minutes. Maybe even more remarkable was that del Potro didn’t figure in any of the other winning results in the 3-2 victory as Pella defeated Kyle Edmund in the second match and Mayer came through 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 in the fifth and deciding encounter against Dan Evans.
Here’s a synopsis of last weekend’s final in Zagreb as Argentina faced the host Croats on an indoor hard court at the Arena Zagreb.
- Marin Cilic took the first two sets against Debonis before floundering as the Argentine came back to level matters at two sets apiece. But Cilic was able to regroup with an early break in the fifth set and won it comfortably. Final score – 6-3, 7-5, 3-6, 1-6, 6-2.
- There was what looked like might become a costly blip in the second match after del Potro took the first set and led 6-4 (double set point) in the second-set tiebreak against Ivo Karlovic. But a couple of nervy unforced errors – including a forehand right at a vulnerable Karlovic at the net that caught the tape – and the match was soon at one set apiece. There was a sense del Potro desperately wanted an uncomplicated win to save energy but the rangy Karlovic played well enough to extend the match and possibly wear out del Potro, who had the weight of his team and his country on his broad shoulders. The final score was 6-4, 6-7(6), 6-3, 7-5 for the 6-foot-6 world No. 38 against his 6-foot-11 opponent.
- Saturday’s doubles was dominated by two factors, the superior doubles player of the foursome – No. 13-ranked Ivan Dodig – and an oddly subdued effort by del Potro. He and Mayer were beaten 7-6(2), 7-6(4), 6-3 by Cilic and Dodig.
- Sunday’s reverse singles began with the weekend’s marquee match-up as del Potro faced Cilic – a duel of the 2009 and 2014 US Open champions. Cilic served huge – seeming to thwart every del Potro opportunity with either an ace or a service winner on his way to taking the first two sets. He was also able to expose del Potro’s more vulnerable backhand as few players have in recent times. And del Potro wasn’t sharp and not dominating with the forehand. But just when a Croat victory looked likely del Potro revived and gradually gained momentum with better serving and bigger hitting from the baseline. He won the third and fourth sets and, though he had a letdown and dropped serve in the opening game of the fifth, he broke back immediately, serving from ahead the rest of the way.The match finally turned on a poor service game from Cilic at 3-4. From 15-all he double-faulted, missed a backhand and a forehand to give del Potro the break. The 28-year-old Argentine served out to love in the next game to end the four hour and 53-minute classic 6-7(4), 2-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-3.
- The question then became who would play the fifth and deciding match for Argentina vs. Karlovic – Delbonis or Mayer? There was a sense that Mayer’s clutch fifth match win over Evans in the semifinal might make him the pick.
(Note: Up until Sunday, Delbonis was probably best known for upsetting Roger Federer on clay in the 2013 semifinals in Hamburg during a period when the great Swiss was experiencing back problems.)
What probably influenced captain Daniel Orsanic’s decision was the Delbonis – Karlovic head-to-head.
Here it is – with all the matches played on a surface similar to the hard court at the Arena Zagreb.
- 2016 Tokyo: Karlovic def. Delbonis – 7-6(6), 6-7(6), 7-6(5)
- 2016 Australian Open: Delbonis def. Karlovic 7-6(4), 6-4, 2-1 Ret
- 2015 US Open: Karlovic def. Delbonis 6-3, 7-5, 7-5
- 2014 Vienna: Karlovic def. Delbonis 6-7(1), 7-6(9), 7-6(2)
Two considerations likely factored into Orsanic’s decision – all the matches were close including the all-tiebreak result in Tokyo just last month and, secondly, Delbonis is 26 to Karlovic’s 37 and this was a best-of-five match format which would probably work in favour of the younger man even if his ranking was only No. 41 to Karlovic’s No. 20.
That proved to be the case as an edgy Karlovic was not at his best, especially after losing his third service game to give Delbonis a 4-2 lead in the opening set. A break in the ninth game of the second set and in the third game of the final set was all Delbonis needed. He saved the only two break points he faced and won 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 in two hours and nine minutes.
After that it was pandemonium and delirium for the Argentines. Thirty-five years after its first final in 1981 against the USA, Argentina had its first Davis Cup.
“It doesn’t get tougher than being at home and being so close,” Croat captain Zeljko Krajan (above left) said dejectedly after the loss. “Being 2-1 up and two sets up (in the fourth match) and being six points away from (winning the Cilic – del Potro) match and then suddenly you lose. It doesn’t get much worse. But I also have to congratulate the Argentinian team, they really deserve it. This year they won four matches (ties) that they played away and it’s amazing that they won in the end. I guess after all the finals that they lost, it was meant to be them.”
Orsanic, the gentlemanly Argentine captain, said about del Potro’s performance on Sunday, “his comeback is a comeback of the history, of the Davis Cup. He’s a genius. His heart is so big.”
As for Delbonis, Orsanic added, “he was on top of every ball – he played a perfect match. I’m surprised in a good way. I didn’t think he could win so easily.”
Summing up, the 48-year-old Orsanic, who had a career-high doubles ranking of No. 24 in 1998, said about the Davis Cup triumph, “I dreamed of it so many times, we all did. We are part of Argentinian tennis. Tennis is very traditional at home so I think we deserve it.”
Overcome by emotions in the moment of victory, del Potro could only say, referencing his Argentine powder blue top, “I did my best playing with these colours, and it’s amazing.”
Addendum: There was a lot of talk on social media during the Davis Cup final advocating for the maintaining of the home and away format at a time when a change to a neutral site for the final or both final and semifinals is being contemplated.
While many cited the positive example of the passionate spectators cheering for the Croats and the Argentines in Zagreb, what was forgotten is that about half the atmosphere in the Zagreb Arena was provided by a (Argentine) contingent which had travelled more than 11,500 kilometres (7,000 miles) to Croatia. In the future it’s certainly conceivable that similar groups of traveling supporters could provide an atmosphere just as exciting if the sem-finals or final were staged at a neutral site.
NOTE: The Globe and Mail and The New York Times use “Argentine” and not “Argentinian” in references to Argentines and things Argentine – and so does Tebbutt Tuesday.
It’s quiet on the tennis front these days but next Monday is the entry deadline for the 2017 Australian Open, which runs from Jan. 16 to Jan. 29. That means it’s six weeks away – and just four weeks from the first week of the new year and WTA events in Shenzhen (China), Brisbane and Auckland (New Zealand) and ATP tournaments in Brisbane (with defending champion Milos Raonic), Doha (Qatar) and Chennai (India).
Also happening that first week is the Hopman Cup team event in Perth featuring a Swiss team headlined by Roger Federer playing with Belinda Bencic.
In the meantime some may want to follow the International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) as it kicks off its reduced schedule on December 2 with teams in India, Japan, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.
Highly awaited will be Federer’s appearance with the Indian Aces, with Genie Bouchard also listed as being on that team. It will be in Hyderabad when the Aces play their home matches from December 9-11.
Daniel Nestor is a member of the United Arab Emirates Royals.
Keen tennis fans can also watch the 16 women and 16 men competing in the Australian Open wild card playoff at Melbourne Park from December 12-18. The reward for the Aussie female and male winners is a spot in the Australian Open main draw and a guarantee at least $38,500 (Aus), a few $100 more in Canadian funds, which was main-draw, first-round prize money in 2016. Matches will be live-streamed on YouTube.
Milos says thanks
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I wanted to take a moment to say thank you to my team, sponsors and my fans. 2016 was a fantastic year for me, and my best to date. I had 2 great milestones in reaching my first Wimbledon final and finishing the year at No.3. This year was filled with many great moments and after it all I am proud to say I came out a stronger player and person. Now I look forward to the next year, where the goals will be higher and health will be necessary. But before we move on I wanted to show gratitude for your great and unwavering support so a big thank you to all of you who follow me throughout the long tennis season. Thank you M
From the vault
This picture from 1989 is of Mats Wilander and his wife Sonia Mulholland.
The couple have three sons and a daughter.
NOTE: Next week’s Tebbutt Tuesday features THE 4TH ANNUAL GENIUS/JOKER QUIZ.
Top photo: DavisCup.com: Dubreuil/Zimmer