Nadal to re-ignite memories
ASK A typical Sevillano, even one who loves sport, about his city's Olympic Stadium and he may not respond with much enthusiasm. Built to stage the 1999 world athletics championships and as a focal point for Seville's highly ambitious bids to stage the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, the stadium looks like a factory from the outside and little more than an identikit arena inside. The running track on which Michael Johnson memorably broke the world 400m record only 12 years ago is now in such a bad state of repair that you would imagine that bulls rather than world-class athletes had been running on it.
You get a different response, nevertheless, if you ask Rafael Nadal about the 57,000-capacity stadium, which hosts this weekend's Davis Cup final between Spain and Argentina. It was on exactly this stage, seven years ago, that the then 18-year-old Majorcan announced his arrival as a sporting phenomenon.
Controversially selected ahead of the established Juan Carlos Ferrero and Tommy Robredo as Spain's second singles player for the 2004 Davis Cup final against the United States, Nadal thrilled the Seville public with his four-set victory over Andy Roddick, which helped his country win the competition for only the second time. At that stage Nadal had won just one minor title and had taken only nine games when crushed by Roddick at the US Open less than three months earlier.
"The 2004 final was one of the victories that I will always remember in my life," Nadal said here at yesterday's draw. "It was then in Seville when people began to get to know me a bit more. It was an important victory for me. It was the most important victory of my career up until then, and the atmosphere that we went through - it was our second Davis Cup for Spain - was very special. I have very nice memories. Luckily I'm here seven years later, I'm still on the circuit, and with good results. Then I wouldn't have even dreamed of this life I have now."
To Nadal's evident delight, the tennis arena which has been constructed inside the Olympic Stadium looks much as it did seven years ago, which was the only other occasion when it has been used for a Davis Cup tie. Once again a clay court has been built at one end beneath a huge temporary cover, which is open to the elements on three sides. The roof has been covered with insulation material to muffle the noise from any rain, though the forecast is for bright sunshine.
While Spain are the clear favourites, Argentina should not be written off as they attempt to win the historic team trophy for the first time, having lost on all three of their previous appearances in the final. In Juan Martin del Potro they have a recent US Open champion, while the captain, Tito Vazquez, has such faith in the recent form of Juan Monaco that he has preferred the world No 26 to the highly experienced David Nalbandian in the second singles slot. Nalbandian has been named to play doubles alongside the specialist Eduardo Schwank.
Spain's current 20-tie unbeaten run at home is the longest in Davis Cup history. They also have the tie's two highest ranked singles players in Nadal (world No 2) and David Ferrer (world No 5) - who have never lost a Davis Cup singles rubber on clay - but both men have had gruelling seasons.
While the Argentines have focused on their preparations for this tie, Spain's top two men were competing on an indoor hard court last week at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. Nadal said in London that he had played with "a little bit less passion for the game" in recent months because of tiredness, while Ferrer admitted: "I'm very tired. I want to stop, but I can't because I have the Davis Cup."
Such comments about the demands of the season have helped to leave the Davis Cup fighting for its future in the eyes of some. Many of the leading players have missed ties, though all still insist they love the 111-year-old event, which bills itself as the world's largest annual international team competition in sport, 130 countries having entered this year.
There has been talk of staging the competition every other season, of not holding it in Olympic years, and of putting the whole contest on over a fixed period at one venue. Francesco Ricci Bitti, president of the International Tennis Federation, said he was open to new ideas within the competition's existing framework but insisted that it was "very, very bad to change something that is so successful".
The Davis Cup is an invaluable source of funding for many national federations, while the public's enthusiasm for it around the world is undimmed. The 22,000 tickets available for each day here sold out so quickly that another 6,000 with restricted views have been made available. If Nadal leads Spain to their fifth victory since the turn of the century the competition will be more popular than ever in his homeland.