They had fielded some distinguished teams and put some outstanding players out on the court at different times, including Guillermo Vilas, Jose Luis Clerc and David Nalbandian. But no one has represented that nation more pridefully, prodigiously or successfully than Juan Martin Del Potro.
The soft spoken gentleman with the game’s most explosive forehand and the heart of a champion battled with his customary quiet ferocity and deep determination this past weekend in Zagreb, winning both of his singles contests, paving the way for Federico Delbonis to seal the first ever Davis Cup triumph for Argentina by toppling Ivo Karlovic in the fifth and final match of the tie. To be sure, Delbonis handled that responsibility commendably, and the 26-year-old will one day tell his grandchildren about what an enormously gratifying experience it was. But Delbonis surely realizes that only an extraordinary comeback from Del Potro gave him the chance to perform so stupendously under the spotlight and lift Argentina to a stunning 3-2 win over a heartbroken Croatia in the 2016 Davis Cup Final. Croatia had came through in 2005 to claim their lone Davis Cup triumph.
There is no better place to start analyzing the Zagreb proceedings than to describe Delbonis’s confrontation with Karlovic with the two countries deadlocked at 2-2. Many authorities believed that the 6’11” Karlovic was the clear favorite. The 37-year-old was coming off the best season of his career, finishing at No. 20 in the world after losing his first six matches of the year. He had performed honorably against Del Potro on the opening day of the Cup Final. On top of that, he had won three of four head to head showdowns against Delbonis. That is why a lot of authorities anticipated an overpowering display from Karlovic in the indoor hard court setting.The strength of his attacking game presumably would be more than his left-handed adversary could handle.
In fact, Delbonis was not intimidated by either his towering opponent or the size of the occasion. He simply found his bearings early, made his presence known strikingly, and elevated his game accordingly, rising significantly to meet the historical moment. The world No. 41 has a quirky serve with an unmistakable hitch. He is not an overwhelming physical force. And yet, with his country counting on him and a stern opponent looking to cut him down ruthlessly by shortening points and making frequent forays to the net, Delbonis was not found wanting.
Karlovic was committed to serving-and-volleying ceaselessly, and hoping to break both the rhythm and morale of Delbonis by applying pressure with regularity. But the tall man could not find a way to fully impose himself. He was comprehensively taken apart by a superior counter-attacker. Seldom has he looked so helpless on his own delivery. Karlovic is ranked second on the list of top servers on the ATP World Tour, standing narrowly behind John Isner for 2016. His serve was always going to be the key to the outcome of the collision with Delbonis, but Karlovic was not locating his delivery with his usual precision and did not adapt well to the different patterns and demands of a left-handed opponent.
The early stages of the opening set were crucial on both sides of the net. Delbonis rallied from 0-30 down in both the first and third games of the match while Karlovic struggled to hold from deuce in the second game. Delbonis then fought his way out of danger at 2-2. Karlovic blasted a crackling winner off the forehand to reach break point, but an undismayed Delbonis took control, approaching the net, forcing the Croatian to send a lob long off the backhand. Delbonis held on with a service winner followed by a swing volley into the clear, surging to 3-2.
Improbably, Delbonis broke at love in the sixth game, making a couple of dazzling passing shots, taking advantage of a pair of bungled volleys from a disjointed Karlovic. With the cushion of a 4-2 lead, Delbonis surged through the rest of the set, conceding only two more points on his serve. The Argentinian prevailed 6-3. The second set strongly resembled the first. At 2-3, Delbonis trailed 30-40, but once more when Karlovic was poised to make a move and maybe alter the complexion of the encounter, the left-hander took matters into his own hands, opening up the court with an inside out forehand, following with a point winning forehand crosscourt. He held on steadfastly for 3-3.
Now Karlovic found himself facing an onslaught from his foe. On the run, Delbonis manufactured an immaculate backhand down the line passing shot laced with topspin and looped out of the big man’s considerable reach. A forehand return winner brought Delbonis to 15-40. But Karlovic did not buckle, serving three aces in a row and then a service winner to pull out in front 4-3. Delbonis was unimpressed by that stand, holding at love for 4-4. Karlovic commenced the ninth game with a double fault. Delbonis made another golden passing shot for 0-30 but Karlovic answered with a textbook sidespin forehand volley winner down the line and an ace down the T. It was 30-30. Yet Karlovic could not escape as Delbonis directed two straight excellent returns at his feet. Karlovic netted a backhand half volley off one of those dipping returns and sent another half volley long on the next one. Delbonis was returning sublimely. He had the break for 5-4 and promptly held at 15 to seal the set.
Up two sets to love, Delbonis was utterly controlling the match. Only an anxiety attack could halt him now. He refused to allow that to happen. At 1-1 in the third set, with Karlovic back in the familiar yet unwanted territory of a 30-40 deficit, Delbonis lofted a gorgeous topspin lob down the line off the backhand that was completely unmanageable for Karlovic as he retreated. Delbonis had the break for 2-1 and soon advanced to 3-1. An almost desperate Karlovic rallied from 15-40 to hold in the fifth game but he was making no headway on the Delbonis delivery. Delbonis held at love, broke a shell-shocked Karlovic in a long seventh game and held easily at 15 to complete a 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 victory. He jubilantly fell to his knees in a manner reminiscent of Rafael Nadal as his entire team rushed on court to join in the festivities, jumping up and down around and on top of the victor, who now was no longer visible.
But the match itself had been largely devoid of drama. After the scintillating battle between Marin Cilic and Del Potro, the Delbonis-Karlovic duel seemed almost anti-climactic. Del Potro had defeated Cilic in eight of ten career meetings, but they had not clashed since the autumn of 2013. Cilic, of course, had captured the 2014 U.S.Open and had his best full year ever in 2016, winning the Masters 1000 tournament in Cincinnati over Andy Murray and finishing the season at a career high of No. 6 in the world. He is a more formidable player nowadays. Del Potro, meanwhile, has endured his well documented litany of woes since that 2013 campaign, although he was magnificent this year in reaching the final of the Olympic Games and cutting down many top players including Murray, Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka. He is not quite the Del Potro who captured the 2009 U.S. Open but he is moving ever closer to that level.
At the outset of this skirmish, Cilic was striking the ball both cleanly and tremendously. He swept 12 of 14 points on his way to 3-0. After Del Potro finally garnered a game, Cilic went to 4-1 after six deuces, saving five break points in the process. He was pummeling away at the Del Potro backhand and dictating play almost entirely. But the 28-year-old found some of his range and improved his serve, rallying to 4-4. The first set would be settled in a tie-break, and in that sequence Cilic was letter perfect in establishing a 5-0 lead. Although Del Potro kept fighting earnestly, he was fundamentally outplayed. Cilic prevailed seven points to four to take a one set lead.
The second set was locked at 2-2. With Del Potro serving at break point down in the fifth game, he was called for a questionable time violation after his first serve and then double faulted. Cilic had the break for 3-2, won two love games in a row, and closed out the set 6-2 with a neatly executed backhand drop volley winner down the line. Across the first two sets, Cilic had set the tempo appealingly, picking away persistently at the Del Potro backhand, exploiting the backhand down the line whenever an opening was available, and serving with rhythmic speed, elegance and brilliance. He was ahead two sets to love and looking entirely capable of pulling off a trio of wins for his country in singles and doubles and almost single-handedly carrying Croatia to victory. It would have been an emotional journey as fulfilling as Cilic had ever embarked upon.
By late in the third, Del Potro was getting leg massages at the changeovers. But his serve—especially an increasingly bold second delivery—was keeping him in the match. Neither man broke until the twelfth game. Cilic was serving at 5-6 and a tie-break seemed almost inevitable, but Cilic faltered flagrantly here with a pair of backhand unforced errors. That put him behind 30. An extraordinarily deep return from Del Potro drew another two-handed error from the Croatian, and it was triple set point for the fellow from Argentina. Cilic released a scorching forehand to force an error and then delivered an ace for 30-40. But he got outfoxed on the next point. Cilic approached deliberately behind a short backhand chip, setting up a backhand volley down the line. But he failed to get enough mustard on it, and an exhilarated Del Potro punched a forehand volley down the line past his adversary for a winner.
That clutch play from Del Potro—coupled with Cilic’s frailty—made it two sets to one for the Croatian. But as the fourth set progressed, so, too, did Del Potro’s play off the forehand. He was competing much more on his terms and no longer at the mercy of his opponent. Both players had early break opportunities in the third and fourth games, but obstinately held on. Del Potro got more assistance at the changeovers, icing his upper legs. Cilic still looked like the better player, but only marginally so.
At 4-4, Del Potro served at deuce, theoretically six points away from a bruising four set defeat. The highly charged crowd was deeply animated with fans from both countries deeply inspired and engaged. Del Potro was hit with a second time violation. The penalty was the loss of a first serve. Del Potro was dumbfounded by the decision, and quietly incensed. He went for broke on his second delivery and bashed it at 117 MPH. Cilic had no chance on the return. Del Potro vented at the umpire and proceeded to hold on for 5-4 with a sizzling and unanswerable forehand.
Once more, as was the case at the end of the third set, Cilic confronted a serious challenge. Serving at 4-5 to stay in the set, Cilic fell behind 0-40 as Del Potro wounded him with a succession of devastatingly potent forehands. The Croatian served an ace for 15-40 and put away an easy overhead to make it 30-40. But on his third set point, Del Potro stepped in and devoured another forehand, provoking a forehand mistake from a beleaguered Cilic. Del Potro had rallied valiantly from two sets down to reach a fifth set.
But in the opening game of the fifth set, serving at 15-40, he double faulted. Cilic had the immediate break for 1-0 in the fifth, and a chance to reestablish his supremacy and build a lead that might carry him and his country to a memorable triumph. But Cilic opened the second game tenuously, creating a big opening for a forehand passing shot with the court wide open but sending that shot into the net. He still made it to 30-15 but dropped the next two points. He saved a break point with a big serve setting up a forehand winner, but then cautiously netted a backhand before Del Potro blasted away gainfully off the forehand to extract an error to get the break back for 1-1.
Both players kept holding but the pressure on Cilic was steadily mounting as he served from behind. At 3-4, 15-15, he double faulted for only the second time in the entire match. Clearly unnerved by that transgression, Cilic missed a routine backhand crosscourt, sending it long. At 15-40, Del Potro accelerated the pace on another trademark forehand, and Cilic could not handle it, sending a miss-hit forehand long. Del Potro had taken advantage of another critical lapse from Cilic to gain the break for 5-3. Serving for the match, he was unassailable, holding at love to complete his first career comeback from two sets to love down. Cilic, meanwhile, squandered a two sets to love lead for the third time this year. He had suffered the same fate at Wimbledon against Roger Federer and in a Davis Cup quarterfinal match against Jack Sock of the U.S. over the summer. Del Potro defeated Cilic 6-7 (4), 2-6, 7-5, 6-4, 6-3 despite getting out-aced 34 to 16, despite hitting 23 fewer winners, despite winning one less point (162 to 161) in the match. Perhaps what ultimately saved him was his stability; Cilic made 79 unforced errors, 31 more than a resolute Del Potro.
In any case, Del Potro had kept his nation alive, very much against the odds versus an in form Cilic. And that was one day after Cilic had beaten Del Potro in the doubles. Partnered by Ivan Dodig—who performed superbly in the ad court—Cilic toppled Del Potro and Leonardo Mayer 7-6 (2), 7-6 (4), 6-3. Dodig—who concluded 2016 at No. 7 in the world alongside Marcelo Melo in the Emirates ATP Doubles Race— was the best doubles player on the court, the man with the best instincts at the net, and the guy who understood the nuances of that forum better than anyone else who shared that court. Del Potro was somewhat listless that afternoon while Cilic—solid in the deuce court—acquitted himself remarkably well and held to a higher standard. Mayer was sporadically brilliant, but he was vulnerable in the tie-breaks, and an uncertain competitor in the third and last set.
Cilic had opened the tie with a five set win over Delbonis. That was a slightly bizarre confrontation. Cilic secured the opening set comfortably and then swept three games in a row and 12 of 15 points after serving at 4-5 in the second set. He had built a two sets to love lead, and victory seemed both near and certain. But after climbing from a break down in the third set back to 3-3, Cilic lost nine of the next ten games, playing the fourth set as if he was in a deep fog. Delbonis swung more freely and decidedly increased his intensity. They went into a fifth set with Cilic floundering, but he soon settled back into his game, breaking Delbonis in the first game and never looking back. Cilic came through dynamically 6-3, 7-5, 3-6, 1-6, 6-2.
That set the stage for Del Potro to take on Karlovic. Del Potro broke Karlovic in the opening game of the match as the Croatian missed all five first serves. Del Potro took that set easily 6-4, winning 20 of 22 points on serve, including 16 in a row at the end. In the second set, he led 6-4 in the tie-break but dropped four points in a row as Karlovic outlandishly danced out of danger. It was one set all. But Karlovic wounded himself permanently at 3-4 in the third set. Twice he double faulted as Del Potro broke him. At 5-5 in the fourth set, Karlovic met similar misfortune, double faulting at 30-30. Del Potro then connected majestically with a backhand crosscourt return for a winner. Del Potro was a worthy 6-4, 6-7 (6), 6-3, 7-5 winner.
It was a highly entertaining three days that led to the first ever Davis Cup victory for Argentina. To be sure, Federico Delbonis stepped up to the challenge of his life and handled it magnificently. He will remember defeating Karlovic for the rest of his life. But Del Potro was the anchor of the Argentine triumph. His win over Karlovic that made it 1-1 on opening day was crucial, and his comeback on the last day against a gallant yet somewhat unlucky Cilic that tied the team score at 2-2, was nothing short of stupendous. The hope here is that this leads to similarly large achievements for Del Potro in 2017. I have a strong feeling that it will.