A Spanish party

CARLOS MOYA'S systematic demolition last fortnight of a below par Andy Roddick, complete with delicious dropshots and cunning lobs, reminded us that whatever else he may be, he isn't yet passe. And, Spain's Davis Cup win only confirms the trend of the past 10 years or so: that the sport's centre of gravity is shifting continents.

BY VIJAY PARTHASARATHY

Carlos Moya, no doubt, is the toast of his country. — Pic. AFP-

FOR someone who hails from the land of flamenco, where the guitar was invented two centuries ago and bullfighting is an overriding religion, style is, not unexpectedly, everything.

Carlos Moya's systematic demolition last fortnight of a below par Andy Roddick, complete with delicious dropshots and cunning lobs, reminded us what a marvellous clay-court exponent he is; that this man had it in him all along to take Spain to only its second Davis Cup win, ever. That whatever else he may be, he isn't yet passe.

Makes you wonder how much more popular a tennis player can get, in a country where soccer is by far the dominant sport. Spanish kids with a bias towards sport grow up either kicking cans for fun, impaling imaginary bulls or sliding around on the clay court next door — strictly in that order. There has to be a saturation limit; it's impossible, after all, to compete with Raul Gonzalez's level of fame. (Although, as an aside, it's ironic that in Spain, where patriotism matters terribly, Raul is more famous for his exploits with club-side Real Madrid while the national side has consistently under-performed.)

But Moya is ruggedly handsome in a bronzed, Mediterranean rock-star kind of way — that's so long as you don't hold that marginal, wide-lipped resemblance to Bono against him. Now market those looks coupled with serious ability; and, ladies and gentlemen, it appears we have a winner.

It helps that in many ways Carlos Moya isn't your typical Spanish tennis player. At his best, the 27-year-old plays his brand of power tennis with the sort of easy grace you would usually associate with a toreador twirling his cape, waiting for the exact moment to sink the estoque between the bull's shoulder blades.

While most of his compatriots prefer to get the underside of their shoes dirty, Moya looks perfectly capable of handling the bounce and speed of faster surfaces. That's perhaps because while your standard Spanish clay-courter's repertoire is limited to looping groundstrokes and mean counter-punches, the world number five has a perfectly respectable serve and an absolute knockout of a forehand. As for that double-fisted backhand of his, well, it's as powerful as Marat Safin's (though, maybe not as varied). Add to that a dash of agility, some heavy topspin, touch, and a dollop of intelligence and there you have it: the most complete player to emerge from Spain in decades.

That kind of individuality is intriguing — a phrase like "complete player from Spain" would appear to imply an oxymoron — particularly since Spain has practically mass-produced clay-court champions since the mid-nineties. Starting with 1993, five Spaniards won the French Open in the space of 10 years. Alex Corretja and Alberto Berasategui were losing finalists in that period.

Moya emerged from relative obscurity during the 1997 Australian Open when he overcame Boris Becker in the first round and went on to thrash Michael Chang in straight sets in the semifinals. Sampras overwhelmed him in the final alright, but Moya had shown by then his game wasn't limited. He won the French Open in 1998 and then reached the semifinals of the US Open; six months later he became the first ever Spanish world number one since the rankings commenced in 1975.

Moya's career hasn't quite carried on with the same momentum ever since he sustained a stress fracture in the back towards the end of 1999. The one Slam win does his talent little justice. The injury threatened to cut short Moya's career; and although he has had a decent run this year, he looked short on confidence during the big matches. Which is why, the Davis Cup win is like an adrenaline shot administered to his game.

Over the past four or five years, the Spanish Davis Cup team has managed some fantastic results and is, in some ways, beginning to resemble the French team of the late-eighties, which included players like Guy Forget, one-time French Open winner Yannick Noah and Henri Leconte. As ATP pros, they had decent results but hardly managed anything spectacular. As a team, they were exemplary.

Spain's Davis Cup team might be a little short on individual Slams (indeed, the tally on hardcourts is zero) but when it comes to team spirit, they could steal the pants off a boy-scout. This side, aggressive and dogged by turn, is quite the modern day equivalent of the Spanish Armada.

Contrast these men against the constantly bickering American Davis Cup squads of the late nineties, and you have part of the reason why the U.S. hasn't won a final since 1995.

BACK in the middle of the Rod Laver era, Manuel Santana, perhaps the most talented Spanish tennis player of all time, won four Grand Slams on three different surfaces. Andres Gimeno subsequently won at Roland Garros in 1972; Manuel Orantes, the US Open in 1975.

Rafael Nadal... the youngest ever member of a Davis Cup winning squad. — Pic. AP-

The exploits of these men, however, didn't exactly lead to a sudden rash of Grand Slam winning Spaniards. It took a while — nearly two decades, actually. Mike and the Mechanics and 80s pop eventually began to make way for Pearl Jam's grungy 90's riffs, and several one-surface wonders slowly started crawling out of the woodwork.

These `specialists', by the way, were strictly limited to clay. That is, perhaps, partly because for the greater part of the nineties, tennis was dominated by a serve and volley machine called Pete Sampras. The hardcourt-bred Sampras, of course, went on to win a record 14 Grand Slams in all, including seven at Wimbledon — but no French Open titles. For Sampras, clay was akin to quicksand: he thrashed around, flailed his arms desperately but the end result was rarely in doubt.

Such wasn't the case with counterpunchers like Sergi Bruguera and Albert Costa, who began to regard the French Open as the one Slam they could win. In a sense, we haven't really seen a renaissance of sorts in Spanish tennis — that would be too dramatic. In truth it's been more like a revival effected through the draught wafting in via the rear window.

On the contrary, in the years preceding the Sampras reign, tennis was dominated by a host of baseliners: beginning with Borg in the seventies, through Lendl and Wilander in the eighties and ending with Courier in the early nineties. Back then, in other words, any clay-court specialist had to deal with a lot more competition.

History tells us that while it's possible to win Wimbledon with an improvised baseline game, it's near impossible to go all the way and win at Roland Garros if you serve and volley. Borg was able to dominate on both grass and clay; but some of the finest serve and volleyers from the eighties — McEnroe, Edberg and Becker — could only get that close.

While luck and form on the given day were obviously important factors, the fact remains that Rod Laver was arguably the last great serve and volleyer to win a Slam in Paris — and he did it with a wooden racquet. The clay absorbs most of the power and effectively neutralises the advantage of the fancy graphite composite racquets used today.

Andy Roddick... a below par show. — Pic. REUTERS-

Which is why Andy Roddick will win the French Open the year an Englishman wins Wimbledon.

FROM the larger perspective, the 3-2 result over the United States in Seville only confirms the trend of the past 10 years or so: that the sport's centre of gravity is shifting continents.

At the moment 14 Spaniards are scattered in the men's top 100; you also have nine Frenchmen, five Germans and nine from Argentina, in South America. (Switzerland, incidentally, has just one representative in the top 100 — except the man in question, Roger Federer, isn't doing too badly for himself at the moment.)

In comparison, there are 10 from the United States today, but just two of these — Roddick and Agassi — are instantly recognisable names. Vince Spadea is ranked inside the top 20, but he is better known to tennis trivia buffs as the man who almost ended up as the best player never to have won an ATP tournament. Four other Americans, meanwhile, are fighting for the scraps in the mid-nineties.

The scenario is staggering, given the fact that only six or seven years ago American men and women had a huge presence in the sport.

Certainly, the Spanish and Latin American cliques put up their best performances during the clay-court season, and that props up their ranking year after year; but these men, to their credit, are slowly learning to cope with other surfaces.

That's globalisation of sport for you.

MEANWHILE, Moya will no doubt spend the next couple of weeks reflecting upon the events of the past few days. After missing Spain's triumph in 2000 due to injury, Moya must find it particularly satisfying to have contributed to this win in so significant a fashion.

And there is the future to look forward to. Moya is easily the pre-eminent Spanish player of these times, but the most encouraging thing is Spain has secured its future in the sport. There is the other former top-ranked French Open champion, Juan Carlos Ferrero, for one, who was sidelined last season due to chicken pox; there is also the talented Tommy Robredo. But the most exciting prospect appears to be Moya's fellow Mallorcan and protege, the 18 year-old Rafael Nadal, who has now become the youngest ever member of a Davis Cup winning squad.

Clearly, Spain's stocks are looking bullish.