It has been some week for Rafael Nadal. Defeated for the sixth time this year by his nemesis Novak Djokovic in the delayed final of the US Open on the Monday he travelled straight to Andalucia low on spirits and allegedly energy reserves. All that one can say is that he must have switched to an emergency reserve tank because he motored along quite beautifully here, winning six sets out of six to steer Spain to their sixth Davis Cup by BNP Paribas final since the start of the new millennium.
Quite clearly it was just wishful thinking on the part of the French and neutrals alike that Jo-Wilfried Tsonga might take advantage of Nadal’s “poor” physical condition and make a real contest of this semifinal by taking it to a fifth and final rubber. Unfortunately for France, Spain’s No. 1 was unwilling to play his part in this little fairytale while Tsonga had one of the most torrid afternoons in his Davis Cup career, losing 60 62 64 in just two hours 17 minutes.
Perhaps now people will appreciate why Guy Forget, the France captain, chose to leave Tsonga out of the opening day singles rubbers. His performance in France’s comfortable doubles victory the previous day had prompted some people to question Forget’s tactical nous. They should have known better. If Tsonga ever wins a Grand Slam it’s safe to assume it will never be a French Open, not as long as Nadal rules arrondissement 16. As Spain’s captain Albert Costa said: “When he plays good on clay he’s unbeatable.”
If you were French it made for painful viewing. As the hero used to say to the girl in those terrible B movies of years gone by: “Don’t look darling, it’s not a very pretty sight.” The first two sets were the tennis equivalent of a car accident. It didn’t bode well for Tsonga from the very start when he surrendered his serve on already Nadal’s fourth break point.
One lost count of the number of times Tsonga hopelessly mistimed his shots, floated forehands and backhands long or flicked volleys wide. It’s a wonder he didn’t ask to have the court re-measured. It’s also a wonder he didn’t smash a racket or something. Perhaps he should have done. It was only at 5-3 down in the final set that his emotions got the better of him, lashing out at the hoardings with his foot in disgust at another moment of ineptitude.
What a contrast to the previous day when everything he touched seemed to go in. Almost every one of his service games was a struggle while, in the first set, he didn’t win a single point on the Nadal serve – in mitigation he remarked afterwards that Roger Federer had trouble with it, too. When he was broken again to go 0-5 down in the first set someone called out in Spanish, a trifle heartlessly: “Tsonga, give up.” He must have wished he could.
In the third game of the second set he rescued a break point with a 202 km/h ace but he could never even rely on that particular strength with any regularity. When he hit one later in that game at 222 km/h which predictably went well long we knew that desperation was creeping into his game. Meanwhile, Nadal played faultlessly, ripping Tsonga apart with his signature weapons. Bulls at the Plaza de Toros de los Califas are usually shown more mercy.
Tsonga made a better fist of it in the third set but only slightly. The break point opportunities continued to come thick and fast – to Nadal, that is; 17 in all and none to Tsonga. It wasn’t even half past two when the fourth live rubber of this tie was completed in straight sets – something no-one had bargained for – leaving ample time for a siesta.
There wasn’t even any respite for France in the dead rubber, which it also lost in straight sets, Fernando Verdasco beating Richard Gasquet 6-2, 6-1. Whereupon the Madrileno donned a matador’s jacket and, with tongue firmly in cheek, walked to the centre of the arena to take a bow – on behalf of the team naturally - from the cheering crowd.