It all helped. The brass band and the flatulent air horns and the rhythmic chants by the 27,000 partisans clad in red and gold--the largest crowd ever to watch a sanctioned tennis match--all factored into Spain's 3--2 victory over the U.S. in last weekend's Davis Cup final. But in Davis Cup the biggest home court advantage is the host country's right to choose the playing surface. Americans like clay pots and clay pigeons and, inexplicably, Clay Aiken. But we generally dislike clay underfoot when we're playing tennis. So when the Spaniards installed a court of sienna-colored tierra batida in Seville's Olympic Stadium, the Yanks were as good as cooked.
Having been turned down by Andre Agassi, the lone American with clay-court skills, U.S. captain Pat McEnroe tabbed Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish to play singles. On Friday, while the Spaniards played masterly clay-court tennis--mixing up speeds, unfurling nasty drop shots and sliding deftly to retrieve balls--Roddick and Fish moved like heavy machinery stuck in mud. They won just one of seven sets. "[We're] not that good on the surface yet," said Roddick, who had called the court "a sandbox" earlier in the week. "Bottom line is ... we have to get better."
The tie doubled as a cotillion of sorts for Rafael Nadal, an 18year-old destined for big things. The baby-faced but strapping lefty was summoned to play singles for Spain instead of 2003 French Open champ Juan Carlos Ferrero, who had struggled this year. Though the move shocked the Spanish media, it paid off in spades. On Friday, in the biggest match of his young career, Nadal showed a taste for combat to match his abundant gifts. Playing against a hard-charging Roddick, he scampered for every ball, struck a series of spectacular passing shots and won in four entertaining sets. "For Rafi to play such a big match at such a high level," said the top Spaniard, Carlos Moyà, who had beaten Fish in straight sets earlier, "it's a good sign."
Roddick could not have been more gracious in defeat, applauding Nadal's shotmaking and declining to challenge even the most questionable line calls. Nadal, meanwhile, celebrated his winners with elaborate fist pumps and dance steps, which would have invited jeers at more neutral sites. "I have to learn how to calm down," conceded Nadal, the youngest player ever to compete on a winning Davis Cup team, "because I got cramps after jumping so much after one point."
On Saturday, Bob and Mike Bryan, the identical twins from California, played virtually flawless doubles against Ferrero and Tommy Robredo, winning their fifth consecutive Cup match in straight sets. But that merely delayed the inevitable. On Sunday, shortly after the chair umpire futilely asked, "Silencio, por favor," for the last time, Moyà closed out Roddick in straight sets to give Spain an insurmountable 3--1 lead. (Fish defeated Robredo in the meaningless final singles match.) Its spirits, like its ThunderStix, inflated to the max, the Spanish crowd unleashed a celebration that would have done Red Sox Nation proud. The U.S. team headed unhappily home, left to ponder how to improve on clay--or at least how to persuade a bald 34-year-old Las Vegan to join the team in 2005.
A Chucky Sequel?
When Martina Hingis (right) was the WTA's top-ranked player, in the late 1990s, her most potent weapon was guile. So perhaps it's no surprise that she has been coy about a possible return to tennis. Retired since 2002 because of foot and ankle problems, the 24-year-old Hingis raised eyebrows when she agreed to play in a pair of exhibitions this month--a doubles match alongside 2004 U.S. Open winner Svetlana Kuznetsova and a singles match against former pro Gabriela Sabatini--and in a low-tier WTA event in Thailand starting on Jan. 31. If this has the distinct whiff of a comeback (gauging the state of her game with as little fanfare as possible), Hingis won't call it that. She claims she will play in Thailand because the tournament is linked to charities she favors. But a player as sharp as Hingis surely is attuned to this reality: All of her old nemeses--the Williams sisters, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati, Kim Clijsters--are either in decline, pondering retirement or injured. Provided her feet are pain-free, it's unlikely that Hingis would have much trouble regaining a toehold among the elite players. --L.J.W.