December 3, 2009

In Search of Redemption

Tomorrow the Davis Cup finals kick off in Barcelona with the defending champions taking on first-time contenders, the Czech Republic*, and two of Spain's stars are hoping to lead their country to a repeat.

In 2008 they were linchpins -- Rafael Nadal won his two first round matches versus Serbia, and Fernando Verdasco clinched the title with a five-set rubber against Jose Acasuso of Argentina. So as anchors for their team this year, they have a lot to live up to -- and maybe a little to make up for.

Both Rafa and Fernando played at the ATP World Tour Finals in London last week, and both went home with surprising 0-3 records. Verdasco put up the best fight he could, taking a set from each of his opponents, but Nadal dropped each in straights, losing his third consecutive match to Novak Djokovic and his second straight to Robin Soderling.

It's not like either of them to lose so handily -- together they've combined for a 116-39 record and six titles this year. And with David Ferrer and Feliciano Lopez rounding out their team, there's a great argument that Spain should take home their fourth Davis Cup.

But they do face stiff competition from the Czechs. That country's top player, Radek Stepanek, has improved his own ranking in recent weeks, making the semis in Paris and Basel. And Tomas Berdych won his own trophy in Munich last May by beating Lleyton Hewitt and Mikhail Youzhny in tough three-setters. Verdasco has lost more matches than he's won against these opponents, and Rafa hasn't faced Stepanek in over four years. And if that's not intimidating enough, doubles whiz Lukas Dlouhy is coming off two Grand Slam championships this year.

So it's shaping up to be a tougher match-up than might be expected. But if Rafa and Fernando are going to redeem themselves -- and I certainly hope that they do -- there's no better stage on which to do it.

* The former Czechoslovakia won the Davis Cup in 1980 when Ivan Lendl helped lead the then-united country to a 4-1 win over Italy.

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