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Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Is It Argentina's time?

In the 108-year history of the Davis Cup, the United States has won a record 38 titles. This is no surprise considering the champions the U.S. has produced over the years, from Bill Tilden to John McEnroe to Andre Agassi to Pete Sampras. No nation has had as much success in tennis as the United States.

As we've learned the last few years, though, talent and a strong tradition in tennis do not necessarily translate into Davis Cup victories. Behold Argentina. This South American nation of 40 million people has produced many fine tennis players over the years -- men like Guillermo Vilas and Jose-Luis Clerc, and especially in the last 10 years, with an influx of Argentinean players making their mark. Despite their talent, the Argentineans have yet to win a single Davis Cup title in 54 tries. Argentina played its first Davis Cup tie in 1923. From then until now, it's reached the final two times: in 1981(when it lost to the U.S. on the road) and 2006 (losing to Russia, also on the road). Of all the teams that participate in Davis Cup, only three -- Romania, India and Argentina -- have reached the Davis Cup final more than once and failed to win a title.

I have a feeling that this is Argentina's year. It may seem like a long shot with the way Rafael Nadal is playing these days. (The new world No. 1 and his heavily favored Spanish teammates take on the United States in Madrid this weekend.) Argentina, though, has a lot going for it heading into this weekend's Davis Cup semifinals versus Russia. Here are four reasons why they will survive and go on to win their first Cup.

Home field: The Argentineans have lost some close ties in the last few years but not at home. It's been 10 years, in fact, since Argentina failed to win in front of a home crowd. In that span, they are 12-0. The Russian team that will challenge them this weekend has a lot of talent -- perhaps more than any other country -- but isn't in tip-top shape this year. Nikolay Davydenko says he lacks motivation. Marat Safin isn't going to play. Mikhail Youzhny, a superb Davis Cup player, isn't on the team, either. If David Nalbandian and Juan Martin Del Potro play anywhere near their best, the Argentines should control this tie from the start.

The big man: The 6-foot-5 Del Potro has had the best summer of his career and is knocking on the door of the top 10. In recent years, the Argentineans have relied on the unpredictable Nalbandian and a cast of talented extras who are not quite good enough to beat a top opponent. Del Potro gives this team a second option and should ease the pressure on everyone else.

Versatility: The Argentineans chose red clay for their match against Russia, but they would have just as good of a chance on a hard court. That versatility will help them should they make the final. If they play the United States, they'll choose clay. If they play Spain, they ought to choose a hard court to at least assure that their singles players have a chance of beating Nadal once (on clay, they don't).

Lucky three: Six nations -- Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Spain and Russia -- lost their first two Davis Cup finals before taking home a title. Argentina has a great chance to join them. If they win two ties at home, they take their rightful place alongside the premier tennis nations of the world.