Argentines to embark on pivotal tennis moment

Juan Martin del Potro hopes to lead Argentina to one of its biggest sporting achievements in history. Daniel Garcia/AFP/Getty Images

The photograph, featuring broad smiles, swirling confetti and a gleaming sterling cup, hangs (conveniently) at eye level on the wall in his White Plains, N.Y., office.

Patrick McEnroe, the United States Tennis Association's general manager of elite player development, hoists the Davis Cup along with Mike and Bob Bryan, James Blake and Andy Roddick, after defeating Russia last year in Portland.

Hard to believe it was one year ago.

"Yeah," McEnroe said Monday. "You see the picture of the celebration and you remember the journey. You look back and feel pretty good about what we did. It took a lot of time and effort and patience to get there.

"You think about what's going on down in Argentina, and you realize from experience how difficult it is for things to line up exactly right."

The planets seem to have aligned nicely for Argentina in this 97th Davis Cup competition. Two years ago, when Argentina reached the final in Moscow, David Nalbandian was the lonely leading man. He took down both Marat Safin and Nikolay Davydenko, but the final score was Russia 3, Nalbandian 2. Now, quite suddenly, a formidable peer has emerged: 20-year-old Juan Martin del Potro.

Del Potro won 23 consecutive matches through the summer, taking four tournament titles, a streak that was ended by Andy Murray in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open. The teaming of those two terrific players -- Del Potro finished the year ranked No. 9 and Nalbandian is No. 11 -- leaves Argentina favored to win its first-ever Davis Cup title against Spain this weekend.

Nalbandian is among those feeling the awful weight of history.

"The five points that we're going to play are the most important in the history of national tennis," Nalbandian said. "It's nothing less, and we can't give anything away."

In Tuesday's news conference, Argentina captain Alberto Mancini sounded confident. Too confident?

"I would say we can win all five points," Mancini said. "The boys are playing very well in practice."

When No. 1-ranked Rafael Nadal withdrew from the competition with tendinitis in his right knee, the Argentines became even bigger favorites. As of Monday, the poll on the Davis Cup Web site had Argentina favored by 73 percent of the more than 22,000 voters. History, too, suggests a victory for the locals at Estadio Islas Malvinas in Mar del Plata; home teams have won more than 65 percent of the championship ties.

"With Rafa out, you have to make Argentina the big favorites," McEnroe said. "It's surprising they've never won. It shows it isn't that easy, even when you have a lot of horses. Things have come together for them. A big part of it is the way Del Potro played the last six months. He played well in the [Davis Cup] semifinals. That's not easy for a young guy."

Indeed, at that critical juncture, Del Potro showed no nerves. He dispatched Davydenko and Igor Andreev in the minimum six combined sets in Argentina's 3-2 win over Russia in September. Del Potro, despite his youth, is feeling fatigued after a 27-hour journey from the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai and is troubled by a nagging toe injury.

Nalbandian has a sensational 16-4 record in Davis Cup singles and is 10-4 in doubles. Argentina will likely pair Jose Acasuso and Agustin Calleri -- who reached the semifinals in Basel toward the end of the year -- in doubles.

Both Nalbandian and Del Potro are naturals on the lightning-quick hard-court surface chosen by Argentina. But whom will Spain send out in lieu of Nadal? Ferrer, who reached the semifinals at last year's U.S. Open, might be a better player on hard courts than clay, but he saw his ranking slip to No. 12 from last year's No. 5 and seems to be searching for confidence. Still, he has won six of his nine matches with Nalbandian and is a stout 5-2 in Davis Cup singles. It was Ferrer who beat Roddick in five sets in the pivotal match of the 4-1 triumph in this year's semifinals.

Technically, Fernando Verdasco, ranked No. 16 and a visitor to the fourth round at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, is the next-best singles player. But the slick surface in Mar del Plata might call for the big game of Feliciano Lopez, who is No. 5 in aces among ATP players. Spain's doubles team is the all-lefty pairing of Lopez and Verdasco.

Spanish captain Emilio Sanchez won't reveal his lineup until Thursday.

Spain, which won in 2000 and '04, is going for its third Davis Cup -- and the third consecutive victory in an Olympic year. That would be 3-for-9 since the turn of the millennium (one more than Russia), something that would pass for dominance in what has become a global game.

McEnroe, meanwhile, has been attending to a variety of details at the USTA offices, overseeing his new team of professionals and preparing to create a series of regional training centers around the country. He's also about to welcome two daughters into the world on Wednesday, when his wife, Melissa Errico, is scheduled to deliver twins in New York.

And he's not ruling out a strong American run in 2009.

"We've done pretty well the last few years, but there's so much parity at the top of the game," McEnroe said. "There are probably 10, 12 nations that could win it. I was happy our guys all came back, and we plan to do it again next year."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.