It looked like the final blow, in the fifth game of the fourth set. Rafa Nadal, Spain's leader and world numero dos, had held serve easily in the fourth game, winning on love, and now he fought to deuce from a 40-15 deficit, returning Juan Martin del Potro's mighty serves as if they were flies.
As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods…
But it was not the final blow. Delpo fought back like a lion. Rafa faltered, let Juan Martin break back and hold, and, incredibly enough, break again, making it 5-3 for the tenacious, tall, handsome, polite Argentine. You have to hand it to him. Juan-Martin del Potro, the man who beat Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer in the semis and the final, respectively, of the 2009 U.S. Open at the tender age of 20, the man who this year won the ATP best comeback award for his courageous recovery from a bad wrist injury that sidelined him for nearly two years, the man they call Delpo, is hanging in there for his side. He wants revenge for the meltdown in 2008, when Spain -- without Rafa -- overwhelmed the favored Argies on their own turf, at Mar del Plata in a venue called Estadio islas Malvinas, which I take it translates as Falklands Stadium, but I do not mean to rub anything in, though I know Mr. Tyrrell is pro-British and, with me, wants to draft Boris Johnson, lord mayor of London and great tennis man, for the Republican nomination, seeing as how he was born in New York. True, our mutual friend Mr. Falcoff has a soft spot for the Argentines, or maybe it is simply that he has a kind of Iberophobia, who knows?
Anyway, Del Potro wants to make history: Argentina is the only side that has made it four times to the final and yet never got the Davis Cup, and he wants to do it in Sevilla, a kind of payback. It is unlikely, however, that Delpo realized that Sevilla, deep in Andalusia, was the first city to fall to the insurgents, back then.
Los quartos generales, los quartos générales
Mamita mia, que se han alzado
Not that anyone was thinking of this, politics being been over and done with for a few days, Mariano Rajoy's Partito Popular having the previous Sunday trounced the Socialists and inherited the mess they, along with all other Europeans except the Finns, made of the vaunted euro. Queipo de Llano was one of the four generals, if you want to know, and the one who entered Sevilla. The best way to get all this and at the same time understand why the Olympic Stadium of this city is as outrageous a case of municipal corruption as any recent Major League ballpark, is to read Robert Wilson's The Blind Man of Seville. However, the Davis Cup happens to be one of the most famous cups in sports, and the original was purchased at Shreve Crump and Low, Boston's most famous silversmiths, by a Harvard man, back when Harvard men were Harvard men, in 1900 or so. Mr. Dwight Davis invited some British friends to come over to Boston's Longwood Cricket Club to play tennis and offered this trophy, which he bought with his own money. Can you imagine this in today's expense account culture, a culture directly responsible for the decline of everything from neoconservatism to American manufacturing.
Well, look at it this way, we are still tops in baseball and hockey, thanks to our clubs' ability to lure Dominicans and Canadians. This will not go on indefinitely. But Rafa breaks and is now serving, 4-5 Rafa does not have, the consensus claims, the best service in the game, but who am I to talk. Why, the other day I double-faulted just when -- but I digress. Anyway, he holds easily, 5-5. Oh boy.
Vamos España! The crowd -- under 20,000, but Spain is poor and broke and needs help from Germany and Finland -- is going wild. Both men are playing a power baseline game, basically, taking turns putting the pressure on with relentless long bombs. Del Potro has a magnificent backhand, Nadal has his power topspin forehand. Delpo won the first set 6-1 but it took nearly an hour -- tells you something on how they are playing. It is the traditional clay court game plan, adjusted for today's over-trained young champions, and they are both executing with admirable skill. Rafa breaks to get up 6-5, but Delpo struggles and prevents the conversion on Rafa's service. Tiebreak!
The Argie supporters, who have flown in from wherever -- economic downturn be damned, but you can bet your last peso they are doing it on borrowed money, which is why Argentina never made it out of the third world and let that be a lesson to you, United States Congress! -- are gripping their seats, tears welling in their eyes, feebly shouting (actually they were screaming like soccer hooligans, but during points you could, by all reports, hear the players breathe), Delpo! Anda, Delpo! Forget it. You can read Carlos Rangel, he explains the Latin American disease very well. Or you can check it out with Hernando de Soto. Hernando, the George Gilder-Grover Norquist of Peru -- and of the world -- all in one, told me a joke once, a well-known South American witticism, as it happens, which goes like this:
Want to make money? Buy an Argentine for what he's worth.
Yeah. And then sell him for what he thinks he's worth.
Har-har. But I am really being mean here. I have absolutely no business being mean, and the man deserves the handshake and the words -- there must have been words, but no one knows -- that Rafa whispered after beating him 7-0 in the tiebreak. Delpo just did not have it in him anymore, and the wipeout score in the tiebreak, after four hours of play, did not reflect the heart and guts he put into this match. The last rubber, between David Ferrer -- who deserves plenty of credit, for putting Del Potro through a five-set grinder on Friday evening that must have taken a lot out of him -- and Juan Monaco, Rafa's first day fly (cf Macbeth, above), will be played, if at all, for form and pundonor, to save face, very important to these hotblooded Latins. Anyway I am turning off the tennis channel because the tension has been too much and moreover I am playing this evening in one of those bubbles. I will be inspired.
BUT YO, LET US NOT EXAGGERATE, this is tennis not war and politics and literature. The Davis Cup final used to be, long ago, a world-class sporting event. Indeed, it still is. But with many countries in the game now, it requires a complicated scorecard, wherein sides from all over the world compete to get into higher groups until they make it into the World Group. The U.S., which has not won the Cup since 2007 -- we beat Russia, whose main contribution to the sport is shrieking women, although Kolya Davidenko is impressive when he gets that iron look in his eyes -- is in the World Group and faces Switzerland next February 10. This puts us in a position comparable to the Argies in this year's final -- ours have to go up against two players, Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka, who are better, statistics-wise, to what we will send over there (they get the home court due to the draw), meaning they should, by the numbers, be able to win. But numbers can mislead.
Which was the Argentine hope, and certainly Juan-Martin's. Imagine the man's disappointment -- he had taken the first set 6-1, the day after a magnificent doubles victory by his teammates David Nalbandian and Eduardo Schwank -- who never before had played a doubles match together -- against the fearsome but on this occasion helpless Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez. Argentina was back in the mix. I am using the Brit way of referring to national teams, due to the fact that but for an accident of history, namely heavy Italian migration in the early decades of the 20th century, Argentina might have been part of the British Empire, later the Commonwealth, making H. W. Crocker III happy as a bunny and changing the course of Latin American history! It would have been… Anglo-Latin American history!
But that is what happens in sports, after the big game. "What if I'd a'…" "If only we…" That sort of thing. When it grips nations in their political-historical imagination, you get the stab in the back theory. As it happens, the Argentines were noble in defeat, captain Tito Vazquez complimenting "one of the best teams in history," and both Del Potro and Nalbandian saying without shame the better men won.
And let that, too, be an inspiration to us all -- a very British attitude, 'tis not whether you win or lose but how you play the game. Get that, folks, and take it home for the holidays.