In Croatia and Argentina we have two fiercely patriotic sporting nations, and whether helpful or not, nationalistic fervor will have spread far and wide throughout the respective two countries come Friday.
Croatia, a country clearly blessed with ‘the athlete gene’ has been consistently punching above her weight in the sporting world throughout her 25 years of independence. Remarkably for a country of only 4 million, in the last 15 years Croatia have had 5 top 15 male players, including 2 major winners and of course, the Davis Cup winning team of 2005. Bizarre fact – if you were to name the top 5 servers of all time, you’d discover 3 to be Croats (first correct answer in the comments gets a snazzy JAbet mug), and this doesn’t even include JAbet favourite Mario Ančić, who purists will recall having one of the deadliest kick serves in history. Amusingly, despite certainly over achieving in competitive sport (considering her relatively small stature), it’s not uncommon for Croatian athletes to receive a fair amount of flack back home, often accused of failing on the big occasion, of not getting the job done and taking trophies back to the homeland. Whilst true they often seem to fall at the quarter/semi-final hurdle, this attitude feels a little harsh considering they’re a top 5 nation in tennis, top 15 in football and basketball, yet 128th in population. Would a 2nd DC title at all alter this perception and appease the very demanding Croatians?
A notoriously hard to please public, with a castigating national media chastising the ‘choke’ is something Argentina know all too well. However, conversely to the tough to please Croats, the Argentines probably have a point. A Lionel Messi-led generation yet to taste victory is well discussed. Astonishingly La Albiceleste have actually now gone 0 from 7 finals since 1995. Naturally, this has caused tension, in fact the relationship between team and press has soured to such an extent that only last week Messi called for a complete boycott of national media. Unfortunately for Argentinian sports fans, this agonising failure to grasp silverware when it’s well within reach is a pattern seemingly shared in tennis. Incredibly for a tennis mad nation of 41.5 million, despite 4 finals (and 11 semi-finals since 2002!), they are still yet to taste DC glory. The possibility of a 5th losing final presents a pressure that cannot be ignored. The debacle of 2008 still haunts both players and critics back home alike. Infighting between stars Nalbandian & Del Potro (Del Potro prioritised other things, according to Nalbandian), disastrous choice of surface aiming to negate a Nadal (who pulled out) at his peak, resulted in their most painful of the 4 finals losses. A superior team – due to Nadal’s dodgy knees, home court advantage, and yet the Argies still conspired to come away empty handed. Speaking of another JAbet favourite, the mercurial riddle wrapped in bacon David Nalbandian – best player to never win a major? How did he nor Coria never win one? A cruel observation to make, but for whatever reason recent times have shown Argentina’s best do often seem to consistently falter on the biggest occasion. Do the Argentines have any reason to believe this time will be any different, that it will be a case of 5th time lucky? Perhaps they do.
As you’d expect, neither team has sailed on calm waters to reach the final; both have overcome large odds at various stages of the journey so you’d hope they receive plaudits for an already impressive feat.
Croatia clawing back a 0-2 deficit (for the first time in their history) away in Portland was titanic. Especially considering at 2-0 up the USA still had the Bryans in their back pocket. Alongside the 1st round 3-2 win in Belgium, the American epic meant Croatia went back to back away victories in ties that went the distance, with Corić succeeding in the 5th rubber both times. Croatia faced a depleted yet still favoured French team in the semis. Yet again the doubles tie; Čilić & Dodig this time seeing off the then world no.1 pair Mahut & Hughes Herbert, was pivotal. Croatia doing the business 3-1.
Racking up a fair carbon footprint, Argentina will play the whole of this years’ competition away from home. With Del Potro unavailable for singles until the semis, Argentina relied on their strength in depth early in the season. First they dispatched Poland 3-1 in Gdansk, Leonardo Mayer starring with two singles wins. In the quarters came a tough Italian outfit, this time Delbonis having a career highlight trumping Seppi and then Fognini for another 3-1 triumph. No mean feat on a clay court in Pesaro. The semi-final tie was however undoubtedly the highlight. Del Potro’s first international singles tie in 4 years, taking on Murray – an absolute beast in DC, in Glasgow. Fast forward 5 hours and Del Potro had avenged his Olympic final loss and set Argentina on the path to the final. Kudos to Mayer for again stepping up and beating an odds-on Dan Evans in the decider.
Team spirit, unity, and continuity are proving to be huge aspects of DC success. Due to the childhood friends of Čilić & Dodig at their core, a popular captain in skilled coach Žjelko Krajan, and a high player availability percentage, Croatia have these in abundance. After years of differing line-ups, of power struggles, of Del Potro notable by his absence, have Argentina turned a corner here? Daniel Orsanic (coincidentally half Croatian) crucially has a close relationship with Del Potro, and the naming of his team a fortnight earlier than necessary speaks volumes of the harmony and confidence within this years’ Argentinian camp.