On a Slow Court, Spain Is Quicker
By CHRISTOPHER CLAREY
December 4, 2004
EVILLE, Spain, Dec. 3 - The first day of the Davis Cup final between Spain and the United States made history as a record 27,200 spectators took their seats under the temporary roof in the Estadio Olimpico. If the United States team is going to bring the trophy back to its ancestral home on the other side of the Atlantic, it is going to have make some history of its own.
Underdogs when this final began, they looked and played the part Friday, falling behind by 2-0 after Mardy Fish lived up to his clay-court reputation by losing in a hurry to Carlos Moya. Andy Roddick was beaten in much less resounding fashion on the slow red clay by Rafael Nadal, an 18-year-old bundle of energy and phenomenal passing shots.
To win their first Davis Cup in nine years, the Americans must take all three remaining matches, beginning with the doubles on Saturday between the Bryan twins, Mike and Bob, and Nadal and Tommy Robredo. The final singles matches are on Sunday.
Ever since a Harvard alumnus named Dwight Davis founded the Davis Cup, tennis's premier team competition, in 1900, the United States has come back successfully from an 0-2 deficit on one occasion: in 1934 against Australia.
"We know our backs are against the wall, but we're going to come out, and we're going to fight for every point like we did today," said the United States captain, Patrick McEnroe, who, unlike his older brother John, is an even-tempered sort but spent much of his long afternoon on the chair wincing at missed shots and opportunities as the overwhelmingly Spanish crowd had plenty to shout about.
Moya went first, dropping the first three games when Fish went for his big shots and converted. But the steady, powerful Moya quickly imposed his will, dictating to Fish from the baseline as the grit that covers this slow court got into Fish's groundstrokes and confidence. The final score was 6-4, 6-2, 6-3, which was certainly no surprise considering that Fish had played just one match on clay all year (he lost) but certainly no supporting argument to McEnroe's decision to use the 37th-ranked Fish over the 19th-ranked Vince Spadea.
"I don't know how the captain is making the team, but I think it's obvious that Vince is a better player on clay, but I also have a very good record against him," said the fifth-ranked Moya, a former French Open champion.
Fish's quick demise might not have mattered if Roddick had managed to snuff out the gathering storm that is Nadal, who was chosen for the singles ahead of the former French Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero. Instead, Roddick ended up being the ideal foil for Nadal, a quick teenager from the same Mediterranean island, Majorca, as Moya.
Seldom in the long history of the game have so many spectacular shots been hit from such extreme angles, and though the second-ranked Roddick played beautifully and bravely at times - pushing forward much more than was predictable or prudent on such a slow surface and hitting some terrific low volleys and half volleys - Nadal's energy and baseline brio eventually wore Roddick down by the score of 6-7 (6), 6-2, 7-6 (6), 6-2.
It was only a minor upset in light of Nadal's clear affinity for clay, but it was still quite an accomplishment considering that Roddick powered through him in straight sets on a hardcourt at this year's United States Open and even more of an accomplishment considering that Nadal missed more than two months this season with a stress fracture in his left foot.
"I have had a very tough year, especially after the injury," the 51st-ranked Nadal said. "I have been training very hard, and I think I do really deserve this victory."
While Roddick's energy seemed to flag on occasion, Nadal's was a constant: reinforced by the wall of sound emanating from the stands awash in Spanish flags and banners. Fish compared the atmosphere with playing tennis in the middle of a college football game.
Roddick was in no mood to search for helpful comparisons, settling for, "It was crazy; unlike anything I've ever experienced before."
The pivotal set was the third, in which both men held set points. Roddick saved two on his serve at 5-6. Nadal saved his in the tie breaker at 5-6 with a fine drop shot that Roddick reached, just barely, with his forehand and smacked into the net. Nadal won the next 2 points to take the set and, despite cramps in his sturdy legs down the stretch, he broke Roddick's massive serve twice early in the fourth set, closing out the biggest victory of his career with relative ease.
If Roddick can have any regret, it's that he didn't push Nadal hard enough down the stretch to give him more time to start getting nervous.
"He showed a lot out there today," Roddick said. "I tried everything, and he played very well, so it's no secret that he has a very, very bright future."
Until Friday, the biggest crowd to watch a sanctioned tennis match - the Battle of the Sexes in 1973 between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King does not count - was the crowd of 25,578 that watched the United States and Australia play in Sydney in 1954.
But the comparisons stop there. That match was played during the Australian summer. This one was played in temperatures that dropped into the low 50's: chilly enough to see the players' breath.
Above all, that 1954 match was 2-0 after the first day in favor of the United States, which went on to win, 3-2.