Six months after winning his last tournament, Rafael Nadal overcame dwindling motivation because of injuries and fatigue to lead Spain to their fifth Davis Cup title, and their third in four years.
The world No. 2 recovered from a terrible start on his favored surface of clay, before holding on to beat Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro 1-6, 6-4, 6-1, 7-6 (7/0) to give the hosts a 3-1 series win on Sunday.
Nadal’s first title since winning his sixth French Open in June followed a run of below-par performances in which he acknowledged feeling less passionate about the sport as another long season took its toll.
Though there were flashes of that poor end-of-season run, Nadal eventually settled into his usual dominant groove on clay, helped by del Potro’s 64 unforced errors. It was the Spaniard’s 20th straight victory since debuting in the competition in 2004 with a loss.
“I’ve never had the chance to secure the winning point of a Davis Cup. In the end it came down to me,” said Nadal, who extended his clay record to 16-0 and ensured Argentina remain the only nation to play in four finals without a victory.
Spain players Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco and captain Albert Costa were among those who enveloped Nadal after he had dropped to the ground in celebration, while del Potro exited the arena in tears.
It was the third Davis Cup trophy for Nadal, who secured a point in the win over the US as a teenager at the same Olympic Stadium in the 2004 final.
“It’s a special feeling, since you’re playing at home in the last event of the year, and it’s to win the Davis Cup, and all of the emotion and happiness that comes with being on the court,” said Nadal, who missed the quarter-final win over the US, before returning in the semi-final against France. “It’s going to be impossible to repeat.”
Not since the US teams of the late 1970s and early 1980s has a country dominated the competition to such an extent.
“On home clay, they are probably one of the best teams in history,” Argentina captain Tito Vazquez said after Spain stretched their record home winning streak to 21 series.
While Nadal has come to rule on clay since 2005 — losing only seven matches on the surface since then — he endured his most lopsided set defeat in the competition when del Potro hit forehand winners at will to break serve four straight times.
Del Potro’s pinpoint accuracy compounded Nadal’s sluggish start to give the visitors hope of becoming the first team since Australia 72 years ago to come back from a 2-0 deficit in the Davis Cup final.
While del Potro struggled on serve throughout, the Argentine overpowered his opponent with a laser-like forehand that contributed to his 44 winners as Nadal seemed to struggle with nerves, but del Potro then started misfiring and Nadal found his rhythm to break back in the second game of the second set, before finally holding serve.
“That was a very important moment,” said Nadal, who routed Juan Monaco in his opening match. “After that game, I felt like the match started for me.”
Nadal steadied thanks to his strong backhand, and he eventually smashed a forehand winner to secure the set and send nearly 23,000 fans into wild celebrations.
“I’ve never played in front of such a crowd before,” said Nadal, one of only seven players to have completed a career Grand Slam of major titles.