Rafael Nadal punched the air as chants of “Rafa, Rafa” echoed around the arena as the Davis Cup finals burst into life, shortly before midnight on Tuesday in La Caja Magica.
After underwhelming attendances so far at the glitzy new version of the 119-year-old competition, a sell-out crowd in the cavernous 12,500-seat stadium roared the world No.1 to a 6-3 7-6(7) win over Russia’s Karen Khachanov.
While the reaction to Nadal’s victory sounded like Spain had won the old trophy for a sixth time it actually just levelled the Group B tie at one-all.
— Davis Cup by Rakuten Madrid Finals (@DavisCupFinals) November 19, 2019
The victory would come about two hours later when veteran duo Feliciano Lopez and Marcel Granollers beat Khachanov and Andrey Rublev 6-4 7-6(5) in the doubles to clinch a 2-1 win.
With Russia having beaten defending champions Croatia 3-0 on Monday there was some anxiety on the Spain bench when Rublev surged back to beat Wimbledon semifinalist Roberto Bautista Agut 3-6 6-3 7-6(0) in the opening rubber.
That left the 33-year-old Nadal with no margin for error against world No.17 Khachanov and he did not disappoint as he made it 25 Davis Cup singles wins in succession.
Afterwards he said the new format, with ties consisting of three rubbers rather than the traditional five, made things dangerous for the fancied nations.
“The atmosphere has been amazing. The only negative thing in my opinion is we are just starting the last match at 1am,” he said.
“That makes big trouble for us, for the players and the people who come to the stadium because tomorrow is a work day.”
Earlier in the day, Canada’s tennis resurgence continued as they became the first nation through to the quarterfinals after beating the United States for the first time in 16 attempts.
Vasek Pospisil, ranked 150th in the world, edged Reilly Opelka 7-6(5) 7-6(7) before Denis Shapovalov beat Taylor Fritz 7-6(6) 6-3.
The Canadians conceded the doubles but their second 2-1 win in as many days sealed top spot in Group F.
France had a close shave as they beat Japan 2-1 with Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert winning the decisive doubles 6-7(4) 6-4 7-5 against Ben McLachlan and Yasutaka Uchiyama.
There were no French fans there to watch it, however.
The Les Bleus supporters club has boycotted the event in protest at radical changes that have largely replaced the 10-month long home and away knockout format with an 18-nation season-ender in a single city, played over seven days.
“Actually, it was pretty special because it was the first time I hear myself singing La Marseillaise,” Herbert joked.
Argentina beat Chile 3-0 in Group C, while in Group E Kazakhstan edged the Netherlands 2-1.
Australia also made a winning start, posting a 3-0 victory over Colombia.
The six group winners and two best-placed runners-up progress to the quarterfinals.
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