All signs point to an Argentina romp over Spain
Slick hard courts. A raucous home crowd. No Rafael Nadal. Argentina has an opportunity to collar its maiden Davis Cup title in what will be the five most important points the country has ever played.
Alas, that dream scenario failed to materialize as Argentina understandably picked a hard court to nullify Nadal's clay-court prowess, unaware the world No. 1 would later bail on the event due to a troublesome right knee.
Still, the hosts won't be fretting. Nadal's absence leaves them as the distinct favorites.
"I wouldn't say it's 70-30, I would say it's 60-40 because in Davis Cup anything can happen," said former Argentine pro Horacio Rearte, a good friend of the team's captain, Alberto Mancini.
Here's a breakdown of the best-of-five affair in the seaside resort of Mar del Plata.
Argentina has had some great individual moments in tennis.
Guillermo Vilas, a national hero, won four Grand Slam titles in the late 1970s, Gabriela Sabatini managed to claim one in 1990, and Gaston Gaudio took advantage of countryman Guillermo Coria's choke job to triumph at the French Open in 2004, the year before Nadal began his Roland Garros dominance.
Despite immense depth in Argentine men's tennis in the past decade, a maiden Davis Cup crown remains elusive. Argentina exited 3-2 to Russia in the 2006 final, and Vilas and teammates lost to John McEnroe's U.S. in their only other final in 1981.
"The five points that we are going to play are the most important in the history of the national team," Nalbandian told reporters. "It's nothing less, and we can't give anything away."
Spain is seeking a third title. If you're into omens, note that both of its previous two successes came in Olympic years, 2000 and 2004.
Those finals, mind you, were in Spain, on clay, and against the dirt averse Australians and Americans, respectively. And both times, Spain's squads featured at least two current or future Grand Slam champions.
Tennis is a humorous old game.
Here the Argentines were, scurrying to make sure clay was nowhere in sight a few months ago. They picked the hard court and no doubt wanted it as slick as a hockey rink.
Now, sans Nadal, they're doing their utmost to slow things down.
"It's not so fast," big-serving Spanish lefty Feliciano Lopez told reporters following a practice session.
Choosing a hard court is foreign to Argentina: All of its previous home matches have been played on clay, and outdoors.
"It's going to be funny," Lopez said, referring to playing on hard courts in Argentina.
Who'll have the last laugh?
The home advantage
Argentina is almost invincible at home, winning 13 series in a row since 1998, when the Slovak Republic surprisingly walked away from Buenos Aires with a 3-2 win thanks to Dominik Hrbaty's heroics in the decider.
The South Americans had the luck of the draw in 2008, contesting all three of their prior encounters in Argentina, too. Eight of the 12 previous teams playing four series at home in a season during the world group era prevailed in the final; Spain did it last, in 2000.
"This is the best chance we have considering when we play in other countries sometimes the surface isn't that good for us," said Rearte, now based in Florida and working with U.S. Open quarterfinalist Gilles Muller.
When tickets went on sale this month, almost 3 million people in soccer-mad Argentina jammed the phone lines, and fans camped outside the Islas Malvinas stadium in Mar del Plata, Vilas's hometown, to buy them. Primarily used for basketball, the arena's capacity was raised to 12,000 seats, the minimum required by the International Tennis Federation, from 6,500.
Rabid tennis fan Diego Maradona, Argentina's soccer coach, vowed to be in the stands. Argentina visited Scotland in an exhibition game Wednesday, and the little one said he'd rush back in time.
Maradona, arguably the best soccer player in history, routinely turns up at Davis Cup matches, and he's no stranger to heckling opponents.
The Spaniards won't have trouble understanding him.
"If he's there, I hope he's going to behave," Rearte said with a chuckle.
The Nalbandian factor
It was quite the scene in Moscow.
Nalbandian, frequently crusty, proudly waved an Argentine flag and danced around the court two years ago after squaring the series at 2-2. There were tears of joy as he clinched Argentina's quarterfinal win over Sweden in April, topping the baseline-bashing Robin Soderling in five sets and four hours.
That kind of emotion and determination is rarely seen when Nalbandian isn't representing his country.
"Winning the Davis Cup is probably the thing he wants to achieve the most, even more than being No. 1," Rearte said.
Nalbandian is 16-2 at home in his Davis Cup career, with both losses coming against Russia in September's semifinals. His singles loss to Nikolay Davydenko on that Sunday followed a five-set setback in doubles.
Drifting for most of the ATP campaign, Nalbandian geared up for the Davis Cup showdown by reaching fall finals in Paris and Basel, Switzerland, and winning in Stockholm.
The supporting cast
Nalbandian now has a true No. 2 in Juan Martin Del Potro, the 20-year-old who's actually ranked above his countryman and prefers faster surfaces. Del Potro's 23-match winning streak in the summer largely propelled him to his inaugural Masters Cup, where he didn't embarrass himself.
Just how much he's recovered from his journey back from Shanghai is the big question.
The normally bulldog-ish Ferrer is playing like a poodle; his ranking plummeting to 12th from fourth in early September. He was beaten by Del Potro and Nalbandian in their last head-to-heads, on hard courts.
Realistically, Spanish captain Emilio Sanchez will choose between Lopez and fellow lefty Fernando Verdasco as Ferrer's No. 2.
As gifted as he is, 16th-ranked Verdasco can't win a big match -- he's 0-10 in his past 10 tilts against top-10 foes and hasn't reached a Grand Slam quarterfinal. Lopez, No. 31, had a prosperous fall, seems to thrive under the spotlight and is a two-time Wimbledon quarterfinalist. (He's 4-6, by the way, in his past 10 against top-10 opponents.)
"Verdasco is a very talented player, hitting so hard, but when he's playing tournaments or matches in which he has very big responsibilities, he gets a little bit nervous," said Juan Balcells, part of Spain's winning Davis Cup team in 2000 and current coach at Sanchez's academy in Barcelona. "I think Feliciano has better chances to play than Fernando. At least in the last few months he's won some matches in a row."
In the end, Sanchez chose the hard-hitting Lopez.
Prediction: Argentina 4-1.
Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
MORE TENNIS HEADLINES
- Djokovic, Serena win ITF awards for 2013
- Former champ Becker to coach Djokovic
- Murray to return next week in Abu Dhabi
- Agent behind 'Decision' has hand in IMG deal