- Tandon Kamakshi
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What now for Captain Ahab? David Nalbandian has pursued the Davis Cup with a kind of single-minded intensity rarely seen since the ancient days when it was the most prized trophy in tennis.
But zeal curdled into belligerence, and Nalbandian was the one left holding the lion's share of the blame as Argentina let the Cup slip from its grasp this past weekend. With three finals but no wins to its credit, it is the most prominent tennis nation never to have won the team competition.
Nalbandian scored Argentina's only win of the tie against Spain, but he could not pull off a doubles victory with Agustin Calleri and rounded on injured teammate Juan Martin del Potro afterward. Although Nalbandian has been the backbone of the Argentine effort for years, his displays of fury unsettled the shaken team further and soured relations with the nation's new No. 1, del Potro.
Things will be awkward -- but fascinating -- next year as the two of them try once again to end Argentina's Davis Cup futility. Contrary to recent speculation, Nalbandian says he will play next year. "It bothers me that people have questioned whether I'm continuing with the Davis Cup. For me, representing my country is really an honor," he said during a news conference Monday. "We made it to two finals in three years. Why aren't we going to continue having the possibility of reaching our goal?"
But the team dynamic will be different, for del Potro has become Argentina's prime weapon, and the days of when Nalbandian dictated everything from surface to doubles selections look to be over. On the plus side, the two of them make up a strong all-surface threat that will have a shot at redemption next season if the duo can pull together.
Whichever nation wins, it will be a huge triumph because the draw is stacked with some daunting teams: Spain, Switzerland, Serbia, France, the United States, Russia and the aforementioned Argentina.
Two blockbuster clashes will kick off next year's competition in the first week of March. Defending champion Spain will host Serbia in a clay-court tie that could feature Rafael Nadal against Novak Djokovic and much more. The rest of Spain's lineup proved its worth this past weekend by winning the Davis Cup final despite Nadal's injury absence, and Serbia has a capable second man in Janko Tipsarevic as well as the world's No. 1 doubles player in Nenad Zimonjic. The close-knit Spaniards, who just pulled off a fine upset on foreign soil themselves, will not be discounting their opponents.
That same weekend, 2007 champ United States will host Switzerland, which suddenly is a real threat to win the whole thing. Roger Federer will be back in the Davis Cup fold for the first time since 2004, Stanislas Wawrinka hit the top 10 this year, and the two even combined to win the Olympic doubles gold medal in Beijing. Still, the Americans have been virtually unbeatable in Davis Cup doubles thanks to the Bryan brothers, and with two current top-10 players in Andy Roddick and James Blake, the U.S. team will be psyched for an exciting and high-profile battle at home.
And all this just to get to the quarterfinals. The featured clash there is likely to be Argentina against the deep and uber-talented French group that includes Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gilles Simon, Gael Monfils, Richard Gasquet and some pretty handy doubles players besides. It's lucky for the other countries that teams can consist of only four players, but the French need the variety to offset the unpredictability of their performers. Injuries and a failure to step up saw their campaign come to a sticky end this year against the United States, and they'll have to be sharp to avoid a possible first-round upset by the quirky two-man Czech team of Tomas Berdych and Radek Stepanek.
Another lively quarterfinal will see the winner of the U.S.-Switzerland matchup take on either the Croats or the Chileans. It would be an away tie for the United States, which would face either the fire-bombing Croats on a lightning-fast carpet or the chanting Chileans on slow red clay. Switzerland has never faced either nation, so a coin toss would decide who would host the tie. The biggest question then would be whether Federer will play. So far, he has committed only to the opening round.
The country that navigates all the top-half minefields safely will play for the Cup against the winner of a projected Spain-Russia semifinal. The Russians would host Spain but travel to Serbia if the Serbs were to pull off the upset and take Spain's place.
"If anyone had wanted to award us the toughest opponent in the hardest possible circumstances, it would have been Spain on their own turf," Serbian captain Niki Pilic said recently. "Nevertheless, we still cling to hope. My decade-long experience assures me that this competition is unpredictable."
Rather bitterly, David Nalbandian would have to agree -- but perhaps gain faint hope.
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.
Spain's unexpected victory over Argentina showed once again that anything can happen in Davis Cup play. With blockbuster clashes like the U.S. vs. Switzerland and Spain vs. Serbia to kick things off, what lies in store next year?