Spain gets monkey off its back

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PHILADELPHIA (Sports Network) - It took 79 years, but Spain finally captured its first-ever Davis Cup title with a 3-1 victory over 27-time champion Australia in early December.

Spain started playing Davis Cup in 1921 and had been considered the best tennis nation to never corral the 101-year-old chalice.

The recently-tennis-rich country needed to finish No. 1 in one form or another, considering the Spaniards had never boasted a year- end top-ranked performer in the men's game, or a Davis Cup champion. Carlos Moya gave Spain its only world No. 1 male, albeit only for two weeks, in March of 1999, but the long-haired star has battled injuries ever since, forcing his current world ranking to plummet 40 spots.

Moya is the only Spaniard in the 28-year history of the rankings to rest atop the world list.

But Spain finally broke through a few weeks ago, stopping the reigning champion Aussies on the Spaniards' beloved clay in Barcelona. Spain became the 10th nation to hoist the Davis Cup and the first new country to clutch the silver bowl since Germany in 1988.

After falling behind 1-0 in the highly-anticipated best-of-five- match showdown at Palau Sant Jordi, the hosts rebounded with a furious three-match win streak to secure the prize.

Spain grabbed a huge 2-1 lead by winning the pivotal doubles match on Saturday, setting the stage for national hero Juan Carlos Ferrero the following day. The 20-year-old Ferrero clinched the Cup with a victory against cocky 19-year-old Aussie Lleyton Hewitt, who bowed out in four sets, sending the Spanish crowd into a frenzy and prompting a nationwide fiesta.

Led by King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia, 14,000 crazed fans waved flags, chanted "campeones, campeones," and sang "Que Viva Espana." The on-court celebration forced officials to cancel the last meaningless match between Alex Corretja and Patrick Rafter after the clay-lined 1992 Olympic arena was turned into a dust bowl from the post-Ferrero- Hewitt match scene.

Javier Duarte captained the Spanish team to victory in Barcelona, making all the right moves in order for his squad to topple Australia. A controversial decision by the captain prevented Spain's No. 1, Corretja, from performing in Friday's opening singles, leaving the task up to the erratic Albert Costa and the very young Ferrero.

Costa opened by losing to Hewitt in a marathon five-set battle, but Ferrero covered Costa's rear end by stunning the former world No. 1 Rafter in the nightcap. Rafter, trailing two-sets-to-one at the time, was forced to retire in the fourth set due to cramps in his forearm, hip and thigh.

The next day, Corretja and Juan Balcells gave the hosts a 2-1 edge with a surprisingly-easy straight-set victory against the Australian tandem of Mark Woodforde and Sandon Stolle. Spain headed into Sunday needing to capture just one-of-two singles matches, and Ferrero turned the trick right off the bat.

Duarte said, "This Spanish generation of players is the best generation of tennis we have ever had. It's going to be very difficult to get another generation as good as this one."

The Spaniards reached the 2000 Davis Cup final by destroying an undermanned U.S. team, 5-0, on home clay back in July. The Americans, of course, headed into the match without the services of all-time greats Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, who have all but dismissed any Davis Cup intentions for this year.

Prior to 2000, Spain had appeared in two other Davis Cup finals, losing to host Australia in 1965 and again in 1967. Both of those ties, however, came on the Aussies' best and the Spaniards' worst surface...grass.

Spanish men have hoisted only five Grand Slam trophies in the Open Era, led by Sergi Bruguera's back-to-back French Open championships in 1993 and '94. You then throw in Moya's 1998 French Open crown, which he earned by beating Corretja in an all-Spanish final at Roland Garros; Manuel Orantes' 1975 U.S. Open final victory against American superstar Jimmy Connors; and Andres Gimeno's 1972 French Open title, to round out the list.

Corretja avenged the '98 French Open final setback by dismissing Moya later that same season at the indoor ATP World Championship final in Hannover.

And let's not forget Manuel Santana, arguably the greatest Spanish player of all-time. In many ways, along with Rod Laver, Santana was a forerunner of today's game. He captured the pre-Open Era French Open in 1961 and '64, the U.S. Open in 1965, and Wimbledon in 1966.

Santana, the former Davis Cup captain for Spain, was not in attendance in Barcelona as a protest to his controversial dismissal from the post in 1999, after four years in charge. After getting "sacked," Santana was replaced by a four-man technical committee, spearheaded by Duarte.

The Spaniards have enjoyed a good deal of tennis success over the past decade, mostly on the dirt. The proud tennis nation has placed a host of men in the Top-10 since 1990, including Corretja, Moya, Bruguera, Alberto Berasategui, and Emilio Sanchez, brother of women's Grand Slam ace Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario. Bruguera outlasted Berasategui in the first-ever all-Spanish French Open final in 1994.

Prior to Sanchez in 1990, the last Spaniard to land in the year- end Top-10 was Jose Higueras in 1983. Higueras also enjoyed Top-10 status at the conclusion of the 1979 campaign. And before Higueras, Orantes settled into the Top-10 four times from 1973-77, missing out only in '74.

At least one Spanish male reached the French Open title match four times in a six-year span from 1993-98, including two all-Spanish encounters in a five-year stretch.

Spain's presence as a tennis power was evidenced by its placement of 13 players among the Top-93 in the world in 2000. Corretja (8) was the lone Top-10 star, followed by future Top-10er Ferrero (12), Costa (26) and Moya (41). Throw in Fernando Vicente (44) and Francisco Clavet, and the Spaniards accounted for better-than 10 percent of the world's Top-50 racket men. Albert Portas (59), Alex Calatrava (62), Alberto Martin (73), Felix Mantilla (83), Bruguera (84), Balcells (86), and Galo Blanco (93) could be found in the bottom half of the Top-100.

The Spaniards were busy in 2000, with 27 of the ATP's 70 tournaments being staged on clay. Oddly enough, however, only two of the 70 events were held in Spain -- a number that will not change in 2001.

Following the Davis Cup title, and apparently unable to get enough tennis, Madrid played host to the Spanish Masters, a tournament that features the Top-8 Spaniards in the world rankings. And I guess it was no surprise when Corretja came out on top, straight-setting Moya in the final.

Spain will begin defense of its Davis Cup title against the Netherlands next month. The Dutchmen, however, will have the all- important home-court advantage.

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