Argentina Faces Tough Test in Moscow

Sep 19, 2002, Sports Palace "Luzhniki", Moscow, RUS, by Nick Imison

Argentina, who have enjoyed a spectacular return to Davis Cup after a ten-year absence from the World Group, face their first real test this weekend when they take on Russia in the semifinals of the 2002 Davis Cup by BNP Paribas in Moscow. At stake is not only a place in the final, but also a chance to become only the 11th nation to capture the prestigious Davis Cup trophy.

In Davis Cup, every nation wants to play at home. The choice of surface and the support of the crowd can play a decisive part in the outcome of a tie. Since losing to Canada 4-1 in Montreal in 2000, Argentina has played six successive home ties and swept all before them to earn their first World Group semifinal appearance since 1990.

Of course you have to have a little bit of luck on the way. Australia, who were dispatched 5-0 in the first round, were without an unfit Lleyton Hewitt and a semi-retired Patrick Rafter; while quarterfinal victims Croatia were only able to field Goran Ivanisevic in doubles as they pushed Argentina to a decisive fifth rubber.

Both those victories were played out on a slow red clay court at Buenos Aires Lawn Tennis Club, quite a contrast to the more cavernous surrounds of the indoor Luzhniki Stadium, where a medium-paced carpet court has been laid for the three-day contest.

The stadium was also used for Russia�s 4-1 quarterfinal victory over Sweden, although that tie was played on clay to neutralise the strengths of a team led by Australian Open champion Thomas Johansson. As soon as Russia�s semifinal opponents were known, there was never any doubt that this tie would be played on carpet.

However this is a different Argentine side from the only team ever to reach a Davis Cup final. Guillermo Vilas and Jose Luis Clerc ground their opponents into the dirt as they reached the World Group final back in 1981, where an inspired John McEnroe led the United States to a 3-1 victory in Cincinnati. The current crop of Argentine players are more at home on faster surfaces, with David Nalbandian a shock finalist at Wimbledon, Juan Ignacio Chela reaching two hard court finals and Guillermo Canas capturing his first Tennis Masters Series title in Toronto.

A stress fracture of the right wrist is preventing Canas from competing here, but such is the strength in depth in Argentine tennis that the country currently boasts four players inside the world�s top 25. Indeed it was Nalbandian who was missing from the singles line-up when the draw was made today.

Russia has no such luxury in its choice of players, once again relying on its two-man team of Marat Safin and Yevgeny Kafelnikov to represent them in singles and doubles. The dislocated finger that troubled Kafelnikov during his victory in Tashkent last week appears to have healed, with the Russian admitting he is close to being �100 percent fit�.

With little disparity in the Argentines� rankings, today�s draw offered no further clues to the outcome of the tie. Safin will open up against Juan Ignacio Chela, with the head-to-head record standing at two victories apiece, although all four previous meetings have been on clay. Kafelnikov then takes on Gaudio, having lost their only previous encounter on hard court in Miami in 2001.

Saturday�s doubles rubber sees Kafelnikov and Safin up against doubles specialist Lucas Arnold and Nalbandian, competing together for the first time. In Sunday�s reverse singles, Safin will take on Gaudio, followed by Kafelnikov versus Chela. Under the Davis Cup rules, nominations for these three rubbers can be changed.

Argentine captain Alejandro Gattiker admitted that he was spoiled for choice in making the nominations. �It�s not easy to tell a Wimbledon singles finalist that he�s not in the team, but we have a very competitive team and some excellent players. The surface is better for our opponents, but we came here several days in advance and have adapted to the court.�

Marat Safin, who competed alongside Kafelnikov in Tashkent last week, felt that the Russians were better prepared for the tie. �It was a better choice for us to play the tournament than to practise at home for two weeks. I think the result will reflect that choice.�