DAVID NALBANDIAN chose a good time to pull off his first win over Lleyton Hewitt last fortnight, and single-handedly propelled Argentina into a September Davis Cup face-off against first time semifinalists, Slovak Republic. Nalbandian won both his singles matches and, in-between, won the doubles match with French Open finalist Mariano Puerta as Argentina bounced back from Guillermo Coria's loss to Hewitt in an ill-tempered brawl on the first day. (Immediately after the match Coria accused Hewitt of abusing him while the Australian claimed Coria had spat at the referee.)
The last time Nalbandian played Hewitt on grass was in the 2002 Wimbledon final, a pitifully one-sided encounter which Hewitt won; but this time the result was the exact opposite, and the Argentine was through in straight sets.
In the past, Hewitt has shared with his home crowd an often intense relationship that swings towards extremes: the at times over-aggressive world number three isn't the most adored of tennis players in his own country, never mind other continents; but then patriotism will ride over virtually anything, certainly personal dislike, as we saw earlier this year during the late stages of the Australian Open. Hewitt lost to Marat Safin in the final that time, but the crowd, well, almost indulged the home player. Against Nalbandian, the crowd desperately tried to inspire a sluggish Hewitt by cheering him on and singing in chorus Waltzing Matilda; a lone trumpeter even played the national anthem, Advance Australia Fair, but he might as well have picked up a bugle and played The Last Post.
Argentina's win should count as an upset because Australia, in order to extract maximum home advantage, had chosen grass for the tie; and although Nalbandian in particular has had good results on grass, Argentinians have traditionally adapted better to clay and hardcourt surfaces. The Davis Cup is, if anything, about partisanship — the home team has a distinct advantage and home crowds will attempt to intimidate the visitor in every way possible.
The competition is essentially the homage a primarily individual sport pays to allegiances, to national causes, lost or otherwise. Still the Cup means different things to different players, especially the top ones. While John McEnroe was pretty enthusiastic about playing, others like Jimmy Connors and Pete Sampras owing to different reasons were reluctant to commit. The intensely competitive Leander Paes often seems to play well above his standards while representing India in the Cup, and the country has performed consistently in the past decade owing mainly to him and Mahesh Bhupathi.
It must be said the current generation appears more interested in competition play, than its immediate predecessor. Andy Roddick readily offers to volunteer his services for a country that hasn't won the Cup in a decade: the recent record is appalling considering men of the calibre of Sampras and Andre Agassi were approaching the peak of their powers in the mid-to-late 90s. Roger Federer's burden has only slightly reduced after the talented Stanislas Wawrinka showed up on the scene — the world number one still commits to important and potentially tough matches. Rafael Nadal became the youngest ever member of a Davis Cup winning side last year; since then the Spaniard has shot up to number two in the rankings and whether his commitment to the Cup holds remains to be seen; but he deserves the benefit of doubt until then. And then, there is of course the case of Hewitt.
Meanwhile, Russia will demand the services of its top player, Safin, in September, after it squeaked through to the semis after a come-from-behind 3-2 win over France in Moscow. Igor Andreev thrashed Paul Henri Mathieu 6-0, 6-2, 6-1 after Nikolay Davydenko levelled the tie 2-2 for the home team. Safin is recovering from a long-standing knee injury, and his return to Cup play should bolster Russia's chances against first-time semi-finalist, Croatia.
Ivan Ljubicic, Mario Ancic and Ivo Karlovic are looking to fulfil Goran Ivanisevic's prediction that this generation of Croatian players could win the Davis Cup; and the first round shock win over last year's finalist, the United States, earlier this year has certainly boosted their profile. Ljubicic beat both Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick over the course of a weekend then; this time he beat both Victor Hanescu and Andrei Pavel in singles, and also won his doubles match with Ancic.
Russia versus this strong Croatian side presents a more-or-less equal match-up; but Safin might just about tilt the balance provided, of course, he is in the mood. You would also expect Argentina to overcome the Slovak Republic, which, powered by Dominik Hrbaty beat the Netherlands rather easily, 4-1; so it would seem currently that Argentina and Russia are on course to clash in the 2005 Davis Cup final — A Special Correspondent