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Feat of Clay Spain won its first Davis Cup by grinding Australia into the home court dirt

Dec. 18, 2000
Dec. 18, 2000

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Dec. 18, 2000

Sportsman Of The Year

Feat of Clay Spain won its first Davis Cup by grinding Australia into the home court dirt

There's a film playing in Barcelona called El Grinch, in which a
mean, green, hairy interloper slips into a village and takes all
the feliz out of Navidad. A similar storyline nearly played out
in the city last week when a small army of Australians showed up
at Palau Sant Jordi to face Spain in the Davis Cup final. The
defending champs, sporting spinach-colored warmup suits and
sinister mustaches, aimed to make off with the trophy for which
Spaniards had waited 79 years. "Spain must win," said Arantxa
Sanchez Vicario, whose name is engraved on five Fed Cups, the
Davis's female equivalent. "It is our destiny."

This is an article from the Dec. 18, 2000 issue Original Layout

When it comes to team sports, Spanish men have forever tilted at
windmills. In soccer, the homeland of such celebrated clubs as
FC Barcelona and Real Madrid has never won the World Cup and won
the European Championship only once (in 1964). In tennis the
legacy is one of overwhelming underachievement. Though the
Spaniards had played Davis Cup since 1921, they reached the
final only twice before this year, in '65 and '67. Both times
they were pounded on Aussie grass by squads featuring the
doubles team of John Newcombe and Tony Roche.

"Maybe Spain's problem is that it's been a team of many
individuals," said Australia's Mark Woodforde before he ended
his brilliant doubles career last Saturday, playing alongside
Sandon Stolle. "They've been a team of great champions rather
than a great team."

Perhaps continuing in that tradition, this year's Spanish squad
had more captains than the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria combined.
After dropping a home tie against Brazil in last year's first
round, the Spanish players staged a worker's revolt and ousted
captain Manolo Santana. He was replaced by a committee of three
individual players' coaches and a former captain that jokingly
call themselves the Grupo Cuatro, or G-4. The G-4 briefly
wrong-footed Australia by leaving Alex Corretja, Spain's No. 1
player, out of Friday's opening-day singles. In his place was
20-year-old Juan Carlos Ferrero, a 2000 French Open semifinalist
with only two Davis Cup ties under his belt. The idea was to
save Corretja for the doubles and Sunday's reverse singles. "It
wasn't as shocking as a punch in the face," said Woodforde. "It
was more like a sneaky surprise."

Spain made the 2000 final partly by the luck of the draw. All
four of its ties were contested at home on slow clay, on which
opponents were ground down in wars of attrition. The Spaniards'
imperious 5-0 victory over the depleted U.S. last July propelled
them into the final and U.S. captain John McEnroe into premature
retirement. Ever the master of the contemptuous return, McEnroe
later snarled, "If [the Spaniards] can't take advantage of this,
they'll win the Davis Cup in 3000."

Australia, the winner of 27 cups, was playing in its 45th final.
"Our success is due to having been weaned on Australian lager,"
cracked captain Newcombe last week, "and having to prove
ourselves because we were all sent out as convicts." Newcombe
and Coach Roche were making their farewell appearance after
seven years at the helm.

Aussie players have ribbed Newcombe relentlessly for his part in
the 1976 DUI arrest of George W. Bush. "We say we can't believe
he was the guy who got Dubya pissed as a parrot," said Woodforde.
"Newk doesn't say a word, just nods diplomatically and grins his
mustachy grin."

In tribute to the hirsute Newk, his players stopped shaving above
their upper lips weeks before the tie. The only Aussie who
resumed was 19-year-old Lleyton Hewitt, who could barely muster a
two o'clock shadow. "Unfortunately, Lleyton is a little bare,"
said teammate Pat Rafter. "Sandon volunteered to shave the hair
on his bum to paste on Lleyton's face."

To Barcelona's paying public, Hewitt was the most unpopular
English-speaking foreigner since Sir Francis Drake. His climb to
seventh in the world has been fueled by a fist-pumping,
chest-thumping exuberance that sometimes threatens to burst his
seams. On Nov. 30, after beating him in the Masters Cup,
Corretja criticized Hewitt, the snarky son of a former
Australian Rules football player, for lacking manners and not
respecting his fellow pros. "Lleyton is a very expressive player
who likes to put on a show," Albert Costa, his opponent in the
opening match, said last week. "I think if he doesn't contain
himself a bit, it's going to be bad for him. The fans aren't
going to go for his gestures, and they'll react."

Nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition, but Hewitt was fairly
sure the crowd would do everything it could to intimidate him. He
was right. As Corretja's coach, Javier Duarte, egged on the
14,000 spectators from the captain's chair, the fans cheered
Hewitt's every mistake and jeered his every winner. The orgy of
catcalls, horns and ear-rattling whistles gave the indoor arena a
corridalike atmosphere. "All those fans wanted was to stick a
sword in my neck," Hewitt said afterward.

Instead, Hewitt stuck it to Costa in a stunning four-hour,
five-set display of nerve and baseline bravado. Costa, 25, won
the first five games and two of the first three sets by
topspinning and counterpunching, but as the match wore on, his
ground strokes found the net. All the heckling finally seemed to
hit home when Hewitt served for the match at 5-4 in the fifth
set. He fell behind 0-40, but then he denied Costa with two aces
and a couple of forehand drives. At match point Costa sent a
final backhand flying long, and Hewitt fell to the ground and was
engulfed by his teammates.

That left Ferrero to take on Rafter, the two-time U.S. Open
champ. Rafter, who missed last year's Davis Cup victory because
of shoulder surgery, made headlines in 1997 when he played a
dead-rubber Sunday singles match with a hellacious hangover.
Against the fleet Ferrero, Rafter looked a little woozy. He
couldn't run with the Spaniard, so he tried to outshoot him,
rushing the net at nearly every turn. Unfortunately, with the
match tied in the third set, Rafter began to cramp in both legs
and his right hand. After losing that set and his serve early in
the fourth, he retired.

Following the doubles the 35-year-old Woodforde planned to retire
for good. He was without longtime partner Todd Woodbridge, with
whom he shares 11 Grand Slam titles. The other Woody was on
paternity standby in Orlando. Instead Woodforde was paired with
Stolle, son of the more famous Fred. In Woodforde's staggering
Davis Cup doubles record of 16-5, two of the defeats had come in
tandem with Stolle. "I always know what Todd is thinking,"
Woodforde said. "With Sandon, I don't."

The Spanish team of Corretja and Joan Balcells seemed to be onto
Woodforde and Stolle, anticipating their every angle and spin and
countering with orangutan overheads and swooping forehands.
Stolle dropped his serve in the opening game amid the hubbub of
the spectators, and Australia dropped the match 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.
Duarte later awarded the crowd 11 points out of 10 for its
thunderous support.

The fourth match, on Sunday, featured those two slender,
telegenic hotshots, Ferrero and Hewitt. From the safe redoubt of
the baseline, Ferrero pounced on Hewitt's faulty forehand and
waited for him to make mistakes. Hewitt obliged, losing the
first set 6-2. Then, while leading 3-1 in the second-set
tiebreaker, he hit a backhand long, a forehand long and a
forehand wide. He didn't steady himself until the third set,
which he won 6-4.

With King Juan Carlos looking on and his subjects shouting
"Vamos! Vamos! Vamos!" the weary Ferrero played with the fire of
flamenco in the fourth set. A backhand lob carried him to match
point, and a screaming backhand down the line clinched the Cup.
For the first time in five centuries, the Spanish had earned the
right to be called conquistadores.

COLOR PHOTO: RON C. ANGLE/BEICOLOR PHOTO: ALBERT GEA/REUTERS
Rafter couldn't run with the fleet Ferrero (above) and couldn't
outshoot him.
"All they wanted was to stick a sword in my neck," Hewitt said
of the home crowd.