By David Zakhodin
2016 was a year in which some of the most historic streaks in sport were broken. We saw the Cleveland Cavaliers win a championship for the first time in their history and the Chicago Cubs win the World Series 108 years after their last victory. While no one was looking to the tennis world for the ending of a long curse, the Davis Cup Final served up a streak-breaking campaign for Argentina, a country that had never won the Davis Cup. Much of the focus in the tennis world has remained on Andy Murray’s rise to world number one following his victory at the ATP World Tour Finals, but the sport’s final competition of the year provided one final plot twist. Just as the Cleveland Cavaliers trailed the Golden State Warriors and the Chicago Cubs trailed the Cleveland Indians, the Argentines found themselves in a hole after losing the doubles point in convincing fashion to the Croatians. Moreover, just as the previous two championship teams trailed in their first elimination games, Argentina looked down and out when their leader Juan Martin Del Potro was down two sets to love against the surging Marin Cilic in the fourth rubber.
Having lost in two previous Davis Cup Finals to Spain and faltered in the fourth rubber against Rafael Nadal in 2011, Del Potro could have easily chosen to mail in the third set against Cilic. He invested so much in a 72-minute first set, yet came away with nothing and lost the second set in a hurry. While all signs pointed to Cilic seizing the match in three sets to clinch Croatia’s second Davis Cup title in the last eleven years, the Argentine remained calm and continued to battle despite never having come back from a two sets to love deficit in his professional career. What happened afterward was nothing short of remarkable. With Cilic being as few as five points from winning the match during the third set, Del Potro came up with the level of clutch tennis that won him a Grand Slam and two Olympic medals. Hitting laser forehands on the run that sent Cilic flailing and silenced the Croatian fans, the face of Argentine tennis rallied and broke Cilic’s serve once in each of the next three sets to force a fifth and final rubber.
With the match tied, one would think that Argentina was still the underdog against Croatia in the fifth rubber. After all, Davis Cup victories for teams who trailed after the doubles point were few and far between. Furthermore, it can be argued that in our previous two examples, the Cavaliers and Cubs were underdogs in their respective Game 7’s. The Warriors were supposed to be the greatest team of all time playing at home in the NBA’s loudest arena, and the Indians had their ace Corey Kluber pitching against a team who hadn’t been able to hit him all series. Similarly, Croatia had its ace master Ivo Karlovic in the fifth rubber. Not only was he ranked higher than Argentina’s Federico Delbonis, but he was a big server who made a career on winning tiebreaks and being clutch during the most important points of a match. Say what you want about his tactics and playing style, but I guarantee Croatia felt confident putting in a guy who seemed guaranteed to hold his serve against Federico Delbonis, a clay courter not known for his return game or aggressive play on the baseline.
Karlovic probably wasn’t thinking about the fact that Lebron James and Kyrie Irving came up with two plays that demoralized the Warriors and the whole Bay Area. It is also doubtful that he thought about how the Chicago Cubs chased Corey Kluber after four innings. And even though Delbo wasn’t thinking about those two championship performances either, he went into “God mode” according to a Twitter user and broke Karlovic four times in the match. Straight set victory for Delbonis. No tiebreaks. Maybe Steve Weissman’s call on match point wasn’t as dramatic as that of Mike Breen and Joe Buck, but Argentina had won its first ever Davis Cup in the most improbable fashion. And in case you were wondering, they won on the road in a hostile environment just like the Cavaliers and the Cubs.
While the history books will remember Federico Delbonis as the man who clinched Argentina its first Davis Cup title, the aforementioned Juan Martin Del Potro was the true hero. The last time we wrote about him, he was teary eyed and still had his head up after a runner-up performance at the Olympic Games in Rio. In the meantime, he turned out an excellent performance at the U.S. Open in a run to the quarterfinals where he lost to the eventual champion and then got revenge on Andy Murray in the Davis Cup semifinals by defeating the Gold Medalist in five sets in late September. The fact that Del Potro pulled out of the Paris Masters, a tournament that would have helped him bump his year-end ranking up even higher, to commit to playing both singles and doubles in the Davis Cup Final is a testament to how badly he wanted to win this event for both himself and for his country.
There are some who say that the tennis season becomes irrelevant following the conclusion of the U.S. Open or that Davis Cup no longer means as much as it used to. With the competition being stretched out over the course of a full calendar season and certain top players choosing to sit out, Davis Cup has come under much scrutiny. Additionally, considering the fact that tennis is introducing Laver Cup, an event premiering in 2017 mimicking the idea of golf’s President’s or Ryder Cups, Davis Cup has taken a massive hit in the public eye. For those thinking that the tournament is losing its relevance, I ask you to look at the images of Cilic looking on in despair and of the Argentines rejoicing following victory.
For the participants involved, Davis Cup continues to be a hallmark of what it means to play team tennis in a meaningful way by representing one’s country. Perhaps there may be solutions to making the competition more popular, but the bottom line is that winning that title and being able to stand next to a nearly century-old un-liftable trophy is a career goal and means to the players more than any casual fan could imagine. Speaking of fans, the biggest evidence of the liveliness of Davis Cup is the raucous crowd we saw this weekend. Not only did the visiting Argentine fans travel extremely well, but both they and the home Croatian fans exhibited such energy and exhilaration that it often took players over a minute to resume play between points. The presence of a legend like Diego Maradona at this event is yet another indicator of the passion that these tennis fans have for their country’s Davis Cup success. In no other tennis tournament is there a setting quite like the one we witness during Davis Cup where both fanbases are chanting at the top of their lungs and shaking the cowbells that give this competition its signature energy and raise the stakes for the players who are playing for something bigger than themselves.
Ultimately, what makes a victory in Davis Cup so powerful is the confidence that is instilled in the top player of the winning team who fought to accomplish this career goal. Let’s begin with a young Rafael Nadal who helped Spain win the Davis Cup in 2004 against the Americans. The following year he was ranked number two in the world and had won his first Grand Slam at Roland Garros. Next, Novak Djokovic, like Del Potro, won the fourth rubber of the 2010 Davis Cup Final against France to send the match to a fifth rubber and help Serbia win its first Davis Cup in comeback fashion. In 2011, Djokovic referred to Serbia’s victory as a steppingstone for a career season where he won three Grand Slams and became world number one after stagnantly sitting at number three the previous several years. Then, in 2014, Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka finally accomplished their longtime goals of winning the Davis Cup for Switzerland despite showing spotty commitment to the competition throughout a majority of their careers. In 2015, Stan Wawrinka absolved himself of the One-Slam-Wonder tag and won his second career Major at the French while Roger Federer reached two Grand Slam finals and made a strong push for world number one. Finally, in last year’s Davis Cup Final, we saw Andy Murray clinch the title for Great Britain. A year later he is ranked world number one after capping a season where he reached the finals of Australia and the French and won Wimbledon and the World Tour Finals.
As the results from the current generation’s five best players indicate, Juan Martin Del Potro (who we dubbed the sixth best) is primed for a big 2017 season. With the uncertainty of the left wrist injury virtually behind him, there is not a whole lot preventing him from making an even bigger leap in his career trajectory. Having shown this year that he can beat the sport’s highest ranked players, Del Potro should not only be able to return to the Top 10 but also contend for more Grand Slam titles. His fitness is something that has been questioned by many since his return from injury, but he has clearly proven in the last two Davis Cup rounds that he is capable of winning in five sets against two of the world’s top six players. Therefore, 2017 presents Del Potro with an excellent opportunity to build on the momentum gained from Davis Cup victory and succeed in a way that the five men in front of him succeeded after they won for their country. For now, however, he is the man who helped Argentina break its curse of never winning Davis Cup, and his role in their victory will never be forgotten no matter how the perception of the competition changes in the future.