He has had a season with more than its usual share of disappointments but the irrepressible Rafael Nadal ended it here yesterday in a manner of which he could only have dreamed: lying on his back in celebration on his beloved red clay after striking the winning blow for Spain in the final of the Davis Cup. Nadal's 1-6, 6-4, 6-1, 7-6 victory over Argentina's Juan Martin del Potro, after a four-hour match full of drama, secured Spain's fifth Davis Cup triumph in 12 years.
For most of this year Nadal has had to give second best to Novak Djokovic, while in London less than a fortnight ago he suffered his worst mauling in 26 meetings with Roger Federer, his greatest rival. For all his difficulties, however, the 25-year-old Spaniard remains the king of clay. Having swept aside Juan Monaco in the opening rubber on Friday, he faced a much sterner test against Del Potro, but held firm in the face of a spirited performance by the 2009 US Open champion. "Today is one of the most emotional days of my career," Nadal said afterwards before going on to reveal that he will not play in the Davis Cup next year because of the demands of the schedule.
It was a match worthy of an occasion full of noise and colour. The 25,000-plus crowd inside the Olympic Stadium, including 2,000 Argentine supporters, most wearing their national football shirts, created so much noise they even drowned out the brass band and drummers who had been orchestrating the home support.
Argentina had kept their chances alive by winning Saturday's doubles, reducing the match arrears to 2-1, and the momentum stayed with the visiting team during a remarkable opening set.
Del Potro dropped his serve with a double fault in the very first game but went on to break Nadal four times in a row. Going for his shots, the 6ft 6in Argentine hit some huge winners from the baseline. For such a big man Del Potro can be a surprisingly good mover and, on set-point, struck a fine backhand cross-court winner after chasing down a drop-shot. It was the first set Nadal had lost in a Davis Cup tie for three years.
When Del Potro broke again at the start of the second set to win his seventh game in succession, even the most diehard Spanish supporter might have begun preparing for the worst. Was Nadal about to lose a Davis Cup singles rubber on clay for the first time?
The world No 2's response, however, was magnificent. Wearing Del Potro down with his extraordinary defence, Nadal stopped the rot to level at 1-1 and broke again to win the second set, celebrating with a huge leap into the air.
Nadal took the third comfortably and went 2-0 up in the fourth but Del Potro fought like a tiger. The world No 11 was two points away from levelling the match when he served at 5-3 and 30-15 but then lost three points in a row.
At 6-5, it was Nadal's turn to serve for the set – and the match – but more huge hitting by Del Potro forced a tie-break. However, the Argentine did not win another point. While his opponent kept his composure, Del Potro made a succession of mistakes in the tie-break, which ended with Nadal thumping a forehand winner down the line.
His colleagues ran to celebrate with their hero but it was typical of Nadal that he broke free to commiserate with Del Potro before shaking hands and embracing each member of the Argentina team. He is living proof that nice guys can come first.
Davis cup final: Spain 3 Argentina 1
R Nadal (Sp) bt J M del Potro (Arg)
1-6, 6-4, 6-1, 7-6
D Nalbandian/E Schwank (Arg) bt F Lopez/F Verdasco (Sp)
6-4, 6-2, 6-3
D Ferrer (Sp) bt Del Potro (Arg)
6-2, 6-7, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3
Nadal (Sp) bt J Monaco (Arg)
6-1, 6-1, 6-2Reuse content