Apparently Rafael Nadal wasn't quite linchpin I thought he was.
Argentina, well-poised to win its first ever Davis Cup, might have had home court advantage -- but that didn't stop Spain from powering through this weekend's finals, even without their star player.
Though the match-up may have looked pretty even on paper, most pundits seemed to favor the Argentines, led by world #9 Juan Martin Del Potro and #11 David Nalbandian. On the opposite side David Ferrer, who was Spain's highest-ranked player at #12, had been struggling in the latter part of the year, and when Nalbandian beat him in straight sets in the first game, it seemed the experts would be proven right.
But then Del Potro, who's seen his star soar this year -- he had been ranked as low as #81 in just April -- lost a surprising match to Feliciano Lopez, who'd peaked at #20 in 2005.
With the score tied on Saturday, all eyes were on the doubles match. Lopez and Fernando Verdasco were paired against Agustin Calleri and Nalbandian. After splitting the first two sets, the Spaniards squeaked by a tiebreak and didn't look back again. They won the fourth 6-3.
On Sunday with a 2-1 lead, Spain's coach Emilio Sanchez made the arguably risky choice of replacing Ferrer in the fourth match with Verdasco, a slightly younger player with less experience and fewer titles to his name. The Argentine opponent, Jose Acasuso would be formidable to either, holding a 4-3 record against David and 1-0 against Fernando.
But Verdasco was not intimidated today. In an exciting match that went the distance, Fernando was down one set to two before hitting his stride. Taking the last set 6-1, he clinched the Davis Cup title for Spain, their first since they beat the U.S. in 2004.
Incidentally, Marcel Granollers, the twenty-two year old called in to replace Nadal, didn't get his chance to play in the finals as the 3-1 lead established by Verdasco made Marcel's match unnecessary. But I'll be interested to see how he fares in 2009 -- maybe the recognition by Sanchez will give him the confidence he needs to notch some big wins next year!