British hopes of reaching the reformatted Davis Cup Finals in Madrid were dashed by one man, Rafa Nadal, who inspired and bludgeoned Spain into the Cup decider wit a 2-1 victory.
We have a great opportunity to win this tournament here at home Feliciano Lopez
The British team, albeit disappointed, will leave the Spanish capital in good heart for they didn’t go down meekly but put up an excellent fight against the world number one, his team-mates and the very partisan crowd which outnumbered the British supporters 12 to 1.
With the two teams splitting the two singles it was left to the doubles rubber to decide which of them would go forward to face Canada in the final, the Canadians having progressed earlier in the day 2-1 against Russia.
And it was in that deciding rubber where Nadal with his doubles partner Feliciano Lopez, produced some mesmerising and inspiring tennis to secure a dramatic last-four victory 7-6(3) 7-6(8) over Jamie Murray and Neal Skupski for his nation’s first appearance in a Davis Cup final since 2012 when they lost to Czech Republic.
The hosts trailed 1-0 after Lopez’s singles defeat by Kyle Edmund but that man Nadal then stepped up on stage to inflict a 6-4 6-0 defeat on Dan Evans before then returning with Lopez to fend off a strong challenge from the British partnership.
“It was a very special moment for us, a very unique opportunity,” said the 38-year-old Lopez who was a very late replacement for Pablo Carreno Busta who pulled out with a leg injury, adding obviously: “We have a great opportunity to win this tournament here at home.”
Five-time champions Spain were indebted to world number one Nadal for a virtuoso display as the 33-year-old continues his hunt for a fifth Davis Cup crown, having first lifted the title himself in 2004.
“This competition is always dramatic, especially with the new format,” said Nadal.
“It’s really, really special. Thank you to Feli (Lopez) and to the crowd who were amazing as well.”
Reflecting back on the tie, Edmund justified the decision of captain Leon Smith’s section of him ahead of three-time Grand Slam champion Andy Murray by defeating Lopez 6-3 7-6(3) with a confident and unruffled display which augurs well for him next season.
But Nadal levelled the tie but it took him over an hour to get the better of Evans in the first set and having taken command, then half that time to run off to finish off the British No.1 as he prepared himself for the doubles.
With a final place at stake, Murray and Skupski more than held their own in the face of a very loud home crowd and a pumped-up Nadal in the Caja Magica and no doubt rue the failure to convert a break point in the 11th game of the first set before losing the subsequent tie-break.
They were also to see four set points go adrift in the second set, including three in the second tie-break, with Nadal saving one by producing an incredible lob on the stretch.
Spain sealed their place in the final on their second match point.
When a sked to comment on Nadal’s contribution, the Spanish captain Sergi Bruguera said: “Rafa plays like this from the first round in every tournament. It’s one of his powers.”
Speaking following their loss, Leon Smith admitted “The emotion is still raw” but took a lot of positives from their performances.
“You’re within a couple of points of going into a deciding third set and then it’s game on. There was nothing in it. I’m proud of all of them.
“We’re hurting, but we’ve seen an amazing tie here against Spain, who are arguably the strongest team in the competition, especially with Rafa in it.
“We’ve pushed them within a couple of points to a deciding set to see who goes into the final.
“To reach semi-finals is a brilliant achievement, we have come through tough matches and tough moments.
“Everyone has stepped up and we’ll look back proudly on this.”
He told BBC Sport, “Everyone’s got their different journey to go on, but I think we should be excited by what we have in British tennis.
“We’ve got so many different things going. I think it’s great, it’s positive.
“Hopefully everyone can just keep on that path and we come back here next year with an even stronger team than the strong team we have already got.”
By reaching the semi-finals, Britain has a guaranteed place in next year’s Davis Cup Finals back in Madrid.