In a shock Davis Cup result in Buenos Aires this weekend, Argentina fell 3-1 to Italy and now run the risk of relegation from the World Group only one year after losing a tight semifinal to eventual winners Czech Republic.
Without world No. 4 Juan Martin del Potro and recently-retired David Nalbandian in the lineup, the hosts were forced to depend on world No. 44 Carlos Berlocq and No. 40 Juan Monaco to carry them forward to the quarterfinals for the thirteenth consecutive year.
Berlocq won his opening match against world No. 31 Andreas Seppi in four sets (4-6, 6-0, 6-2, 6-1), but Monaco was soundly defeated by an on-fire Fabio Fognini in the second rubber (7-5, 6-2, 6-2).
Fognini, world No. 15, is fresh off a fourth-round appearance at the Australian Open and showed a newfound level of confidence as he anchored the Italian team. He went on to secure victory with a 7-6(5), 4-6, 6-1, 6-4 triumph over Berlocq after partnering with Simone Bolelli to win the doubles, 6-7(6), 7-6(8), 7-6(3), 6-4, on Saturday.
Italy will now host Great Britain in the quarterfinals held from April 4-6. The nation will be in search of its second ever Davis Cup trophy, after defeating Chile 4-1 to clinch the title in 1976. Italy only returned to the World Group in 2011 following a victory over the same opponent in a playoff.
Argentina has been playing in international tennis’s top tier since 2001, when it defeated Belarus 5-0 in Cordoba. The country then went on a phenomenal run that included finals in 2006, 2008, and 2011, although all three ended in defeats: first to Russia and twice to Spain. The South Americans will now face a playoff against one of the eight Zonal Group 1 qualifiers in September to stay in the World Group.
Perhaps the biggest influence in Argentina’s defeat was the failure to convince 2009 US Open winner del Potro to return to the team following a dispute with team captain Martin Jaite and officials from the Argentine Tennis Association (ATA). His last appearance was in the 2012 semifinal loss to the Czechs, where he won the opening rubber against Radek Stepanek in straight sets.
Del Potro is upset about the initial selection of Jaite as captain in 2011, and a lack of consultation in regards to surfaces and locations by the ATA. The Olympic bronze medalist also spoke in the open letter (see link above) to Jaite and ATA president Arturo Grimaldi about the hypocrisy of the organization for attempting to make him look bad in the public eye while awaiting his response for the Italy tie.
Tennis fans in Argentina are split over the stance of their top player, with a number of those inside the stadium during the Berlocq loss that clinched the Italian victory singing, “This is for you, del Potro, watching on TV.” Others displayed signs saying, “Volvé del Potro” — “Come back del Potro”.
Grimaldi was quick to hit the damage control button and released a statement saying that he would do anything within reason to get del Potro back on the team for the crucial playoff. He was followed by Berlocq, who also spoke about how vital his compatriot is to every tie and how much more potent Argentina is with him in the team.
Thus far, there has been no response from the world No. 4, who is currently undergoing treatment for an injury to his left wrist. But with the risk of sinking out of the World Group so soon after becoming the most dominant South American team in recent memory, all will be hoping that somehow del Potro and the AFA figure out a solution sooner rather than later.