His nostrils flared in excitement as he entered the bullring, el famoso Plaza de Toros Las Ventas, en Madrid, en la España. If los Americanos had been in charge of selecting the battleground, he would probably be stuck on some hot court in some scorching city like Cincinnati, the steady pounding further damaging his knees. Of course he would still win; he was after all, the #1 player in the world. But it was nice to be in his element, on la tierra batida, surrounded by 21,000 of su gente beating tambores and shouting “Ole!” It was the closest he would ever come to something that felt like la Copa Mundial.
It was not often that he got the chance to hang out with his compañeros españoles. El tenis could be a lonely sport. He often traveled the world alone, Tío Toni his main companion. So it was a pleasant change to be on home ground, to hear el lenguaje musical de su gente in his ears, to eat comidas familiares, and most of all to feel included in el círculo de compañeros tenistas, to be part of a group of tennis-playing companions with the same goal of putting la España on top of the world rankings. La España had not lost at home since 1999. She was not going to lose now. There was nothing to stop them. There was no one to stop him.
They had heard a rumor that el Roddick would not be coming but they knew that los Americanos estaban echando mentiras, putting out lies to distract them from their preparations. El capitán, Emilio Sánchez, had reminded them that el Roddick had been playing great tennis recently. Éste Roddick went through periods when he could look like a beginner, and other times when he suddenly became ferocious. And right now he was going through un período formidable.
As befitting his position, El Matador was given el honor of opening for la Copa Davis. His opponent was the same Sam Querrey who had given him a hard time at the US Open, who had hung in long and tough and had forced El Matador to four hard sets. More than any other opponent, this was the one that Federer should be thanking for his US Open victory. It was this match that had caught El Matador by surprise, that had weakened him just enough to not be able to beat Murray and face Federer in the finals. Although they would be facing each other on clay, El Matador knew better than to underestimate el Querrey on any surface.
El Matador found himself feeling un poco distraído at the start of the first match. Tío Toni had warned him not to become too aware of the presence of Prince Felipe in the audience; everyone remembered how el presidente Clinton had cost Agassi another Roland Garros title. But El Matador was unable to shake off los nervios. He found himself wishing that the sun wasn’t quite so bright, the crowd quite so noisy, the music of the band quite so loud. When he double-faulted to let el Americano go up set point in the first set, he knew he was in trouble. Being consoled by el capitán Sánchez did not help. When he got broken at the opening of the second set, El Matador knew that it was time to turn inwards, to dig deep, to rely en si mismo. Éste Querrey was a thoughtful, patient player. He did not just hit balls, he played strategically, intelligently. El Matador would need to both outwit and outhit him. Once again it took him four tough sets to do this. El Matador felt relief instead of pleasure after winning. He did not feel deserving of the crowd’s loud ovation. He would have to make it up in the match against el Roddick.
Next up was éste Roddick against su compañero Ferrer. It was a tough brutal match. It took Ferrer 3 hours, 17 minutes, and five grueling sets to finally subdue el Roddick. The score was 2-0 in favor of la España. El Matador wondered if his own match against Roddick would end up being a dead rubber. After all, los gemelos Bryan were not playing together. One of them had injured his shoulder, and had been substituted with Mardy Fish who was supposed to be at home getting ready for his matrimonio. Surely he would be under-prepared and distracted? But, para su sorpresa, el pescado played the match of his life, and along with un gemelo Bryan, ended up spoiling what was supposed to be the big 27th celebración de cumpleaños de Feliciano López. The score was 2-1, para la España.
El Matador did not mind that it all came down to him. The truth is that he was thrilled that the eventual victory would be sobre sus hombros, on his shoulders. He did not want to play un juego muerto. He wanted to be the one to take his country into the Final de la Copa Davis de BNP Paribas, for a sixth time.
The match against Roddick started late. It was a rainy Sunday en la Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas. El Matador started shakily, but finally broke Roddick in the sixth game of the first set, and then consolidated for 5-3. But Roddick held his serve. El Matador fell hard on la tierra batida as he chased a Roddick dropshot. And Roddick continued to challenge him as he served for the set, encouraged loudly from the sidelines by el capitán McEnroe. It took superior concentration and effort for El Matador to dig himself out of a 15-40 hole and hold for the set. He rebounded by breaking Roddick in the opening game of the second set. He imposed his superiority and fed him a bagel. Roddick fought hard and saved five match points on his own serve in the third set. But El Matador won on the first opportunity on his own serve. He had taken la España to victory.
When his compañeros lifted him up and carried him on their shoulders al más puro estilo taurino, he felt deservingly happy. Afterward, in the interview, he admitted that in his career, “ha habido muchos momentos buenos”, he had enjoyed many good moments, but “en ambientes como éste, con tu público, ninguno”, but they all paled in comparison to playing in such an atmosphere in front of his own people. He had earned their standing ovation.
Feliciano Lopez won the dead rubber against Sam Querrey. And Juan del Potro almost single-handedly brought Argentina to victory over Russia. Spain will face Argentina on indoor carpet in Buenos Aires at the Davis Cup Finals in November. I would give anything to be there.