Have sightings of Diego Maradona in the Zagreb Arena made fans at the Davis Cup think they were attending a football match between Croatia and Argentina? Judging by the fervid and raucous old school football terrace atmosphere they were obviously hoping that Maradona might excitedly jump onto the court and start kicking a ball about!
His countrymen could certainly have done with a tennis doubles specialist of his ability for Saturday afternoon’s crucial doubles match against Croatia. Instead, they had to take a gamble and play Juan Martin Del Potro again, a risky move given the fact he was still playing himself into this season after such a long injury layoff and numerous wrist surgeries. Is he realistically capable of playing three best-of-five set matches three days running?
The danger of playing him in the doubles was that he might be too tired for his big showdown with Croatian number 1 Marin Cilic tomorrow. Clearly Argentina weren’t entirely confident of winning both their reverse singles, so decided to throw Delpo in to the doubles even if they were never really likely to win. Both Delpo and his partner Leo Mayer are singles players who prefer to stick like glue to the baseline, whereas Croatia boasted a doubles specialist in Ivan Dodig, alongside Marin Cilic, who is perfectly comfortable at the net.
Delpo’s presence in the doubles would also mean seeing my two favourite players now facing each other twice, which was not going to be fun. But since servebot Ivo Karlovic was safely sat on the sidelines for this match, I could support Croatia freely. The first set was extremely tight with a lot of tension in the air to go with the boisterous atmosphere. Everyone knew that whoever won this match would get a very strong hand on the trophy (in as much as any one can get their hands on the Davis Cup trophy because it is huge!). The Argentinians looked to have made a better start as they were winning their games more easily, but come the tie break the Croatians’ better doubles play gave them the advantage and they took the set.
The momentum was with the Croats and they broke in the very first game of the second set. The Argentinians were starting to look like two singles players who had just met in the bar and decided to have a hit together; Delpo didn’t appear remotely comfortable out there and Mayer was struggling to hold serve. A two set lead for the Croatians and surely it was game over. With the score 4-3 all Marin and Ivan had to do was hold one service game each and Croatia would go two sets up. Surely Marin wouldn’t be the one dropping serve here? Of course he would. This is Mr Jekyll and Hyde we are talking about. There is inevitably one moment in a Cilic match where US Open champion Marin will go walkabout and his useless twin, hacker Marin, will mysteriously take over and suddenly Marin’s serve will go doolally. Cue a whole game of nothing but tentative second serves, which was not helped by Dodig crossing over enthusiastically at the net several times and missing. Parity restored.
If it’s a certainty that Marin will be inconsistent at some point during a match, it is also a truism that players who don’t manage to hold their serves when ahead and go to a tie break tend to win them. Tie breaks give them an opportunity to regroup, and the Croatian boys quickly rediscovered their mojo, helped by some slack doubles play from Delpo and Mayer, to take the second on a tie break as well. There was no way back for Argentina now no matter how intensely the fervent crowd chanted for their team. Mayer was soon in trouble again in the third, and perhaps wisely Delpo was conserving his energies for Sunday’s reverse singles. The Croatians had the break, and soon, Marin was serving for the match. Marin has been known to wobble when having to close out, but here, amidst the din of his own exhorting fans, there was no way he was going to mess up. A straightforward win in the end for the home favourites 7-6, 7-6, 6-3. Advantage Croatia.
It’s not over yet for Argentina. Not with Delpo in their corner. But they must be praying their gamble hasn’t backfired and he remains fit and fresh for the singles. Croatia will be hoping that it is USO Marin and not his slacker twin brother hacker Marin who turns up for the match and doesn’t go awol at any time. And I will be wishing that, despite having to pick one favourite over another, Marin does the job for Croatia even though it will be at the expense of Delpo. Because, should the match go to the final rubber, I cannot bring myself to support a servebot. It is one dilemma I would like to avoid, thank you very much.
So don’t let me down, Marin. Never mind about Croatia. I am not supporting you so you can be the hero for Croatia. I am supporting you so I don’t have to suffer the indignity of watching a servebot try to win the Davis Cup for Croatia. Think of my aesthetic sensibilities. And leave your slacker twin at home. This is no time for imposters. Only proper tennis players required, thank you very much.