In the long history of this venerable event, the Argentines have never hoisted the trophy -- and after an ugly set of circumstances three years ago, some felt they never would. Del Potro and David Nalbandian, not particularly friendly in the first place, had a heated locker-room argument during the 2008 Davis Cup final against Spain and reportedly had to be separated before they came to blows.
It had all gone so wrong that weekend. Del Potro, who had lost to Feliciano Lopez on Friday, announced he wouldn't be able to play again due to a thigh injury. Despite the fervent support of a home crowd in Mar del Plata, Nalbandian and Agustin Calleri took a crushing doubles loss to Lopez and Fernando Verdasco on Saturday. Afterward, according to the Argentine media, Nalbandian accused Del Potro of insufficient preparation and had words with his father. Del Potro countered by ripping Nalbandian for a weak doubles effort, and a fair bit of hell broke loose.
With the team's morale in tatters and Del Potro unavailable, Verdasco clinched the title on Sunday with a victory over Jose Acasuso, who fought valiantly but lost in five sets (Nadal sat out the final that year). All the while, Nalbandian and Del Potro sat at opposite ends of the bench, avoiding eye contact. It was such a bitter set of circumstances -- on home soil, no less -- that captain Alberto Mancini announced his resignation hours afterward.
Switch now to the weekend past in Belgrade, the site where Djokovic had led Serbia to the title -- and launched his own path into tennis history -- last December. Nalbandian and Del Potro, having reconciled their differences, were playing Davis Cup together for the first time since their storied feud. They came out Friday and took the arena by storm, carving out a pair of singles wins that gave Argentina a 2-0 lead. Everyone knows that on Sunday, with Serbia still alive after a Saturday doubles victory, Djokovic had to retire in the second set against Del Potro. Less newsworthy, but a huge story in Argentina, was the fact that Del Potro was at the top of his game, oblivious to the pressure and playing perhaps his best tennis since he won the 2009 U.S. Open.
What a scene for anyone viewing on Tennis Channel: the stoic Del Potro, ripping massive groundstrokes and serving fabulously. Djokovic staging some memorable rallies, but looking increasingly fatigued, and finally collapsing to the ground from the pain in his lower back and rib cage. The Argentines celebrating quietly, humbly, but with great emotion, and Djokovic in tears, covering his head in a towel as the once-stoked fans watched in silence.
There were no apologies from the Argentines, who believed themselves to be most deserving winners, and Djokovic essentially agreed. "Del Potro was playing on a very high level," he said. "I can't say that even if I was healthy that I would have won. He was serving so well that even when I was on the ball, I could not handle the returns."
What's next for Djokovic, now 64-3 with only one authentic defeat all year (he also retired against Andy Murray in Cincinnati)? He'd love to finish the season with a better winning percentage than John McEnroe's 82-3 in 1984, but does he really want to play the Asian circuit, or the Paris Masters, or the season-ending ATP World Tour finals in London? He certainly has nothing to prove, and ask any athlete who has been in his position: You don't fool around with a back injury. Get healthy and then rest some more, just to be sure it doesn't happen again.
(Quick aside: More than a few fans were put off by Djokovic's lengthy medical treatment during the U.S. Open final, believing it rudely halted Nadal's momentum after he'd won the third set. There can be no question now that Djokovic had a legitimate injury, one he says dates to before the Open.)
It was quite a weekend on several fronts. Nadal was ridiculously inspiring in his straight-set dismissal of France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Sunday, in the elegant setting of the Los Califas bullring in Cordoba. Then there was Federer, last seen at the U.S. Open with some rather lame remarks about Djokovic, wondering how anyone could be so reckless as to take a full, almost exaggerated cut on a first-serve forehand return while down a match point. Federer could have just gone home to Switzerland, but instead he made the arduous trek to Sydney, where the Swiss would surely be fighting the odds against a rested and confident Australian team.
This is the essence of the Davis Cup, and why it stands proudly against waves of ridicule. Like so many high-profile players before him, from Don Budge to Yannick Noah to John McEnroe, Federer is greatly moved by playing for his country. If they're playing it in a hostile setting, all the better. Federer always said his 2003 Davis Cup loss to Lleyton Hewitt, in Melbourne, was among the most disappointing losses of his career. So he went back to Australia, took the court on Friday after countryman Stanislas Wawrinka had been upset by Bernard Tomic, and outclassed Hewitt despite trailing 5-7, 1-3. Then he came back on Sunday to beat the 18-year-old Tomic, a crucial episode in Switzerland's triumph.
As much as I agree with Jim Courier, who flatly states that the tennis year should end after the U.S. Open, I'm at a loss for solutions on shortening the schedule. I wouldn't know how to eliminate all those exotic settings on Tour, with so much money at stake. It's just a bunch of talk, heading nowhere, like shortening the NBA schedule or convincing Major League Baseball that the postseason should end in mid-October.
It sounds convenient to completely dismantle the Davis Cup format, condensing it into an eight-nation event at a neutral site, but that would completely torch its appeal. Davis Cup is all about a raucous, chanting crowd and epic scenes of patriotism. It's an event that stirs up more passion than any Tour event beyond the majors -- and even surpasses those, in the best of times.
It's a comically inept notion to stage the semifinals less than a week after the U.S. Open men's final, and it's just that touch of absurdity that has cost us a dream Davis Cup final: Spain vs. Serbia, with Nadal facing Djokovic one more time. But I'm sort of warming to the idea of Nadal vs. Del Potro, as Argentina continues a memorable charge through Europe. That doesn't sound too bad at all.