By Chris Oddo | Sunday November 27th, 2016
Argentina tasted the spoils of the Davis Cup for the first time in history on Sunday, defeating Croatia in a tense, dramatic final that came down to a fifth and deciding rubber.
Whatever the reason, Del Potro was flawless down the stretch against Cilic. He was broken only once in the final three sets and responded to that break immediately with a break of his own to level at 1-1 in set five. He won 12 of the final 13 points of the match, finally clinching his fairy tale comeback at the four hour and 53-minute mark.
More: Del Potro Shines in Zagreb and the Tennis World Reacts to His Emotional Victory
Federico Delbonis’ 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 victory over Ivo Karlovic capped an improbable comeback that began several hours earlier when Marin Cilic took a two sets to love lead on Juan Martin del Potro. Del Potro, buoyed by the feverish support of the Argentinean throng, would not be denied, and he pecked away at Cilic’s lead with late breaks in the third and fourth set before completing his emotional voyage to bring Argentina level.
Early in the third set, when hope was faint, Del Potro produced a running ‘tweener lob that drew the applause of Cilic after it sailed over his head and bounced just inside the line.
Though it seemed insignificant at the time, it will no doubt be remembered as the shot that the match turned on, whether that assessment be true or not.
Delbonis, who had dropped the opening match of the tie on Friday to Cilic, was unflappable in his straight-sets takedown of Karlovic. He saved both break points he faced and cracked 25 winners to just 13 for the 37-year-old Karlovic.
After five hours of doubt and stress, Delbonis stepped in to replace it with jubilation.
Argentina had owned the dubious record of appearing in more Davis Cup finals than any other titleless nation until Sunday. They were appearing in their fourth final since 2006 (and fifth overall) and were backed by a traveling contingent of fans that made for an unforgettable atmosphere.
“I did my best playing with these colors, and it’s amazing,” Del Potro said as he pointed to his heart after his win over Cilic.
At the time Del Potro was apprehensive about the outcome, but after the match he could be seen singing and dancing as he and his teammates planted kisses on the regal Davis Cup trophy.
The victory for Argentina caps an emotional comeback season for Del Potro. Two of his greatest moments happened as he wore his countries’ colors. At the Rio games Del Potro upset World No.1 Novak Djokovic while making a stunning run to the Silver medal. It was one of the emotional high points of the 2016 tennis season, and one could easily argue that today’s triumph for Argentina was the high point.
On the flip side was a devastated Croatian team that came so close to victory but was unable to stop the swell of Argentina’s wave as it rose and eventually overcame them.
A heartbroken Marin Cilic could only look on dejectedly as Karlovic was beaten soundly by Delbonis in the deciding match. If there was one chance for Croatia to win the tie it had slipped away with Cilic’s lead.
That was a recurring theme for Cilic in 2016. He showed so much promise but his campaign will be remembered more for the victories he couldn’t complete. He failed to convert three match points against Roger Federer and let a two sets to love lead slip to the Swiss in the Wimbledon quarterfinals. He also blew a two sets to love lead against Jack Sock at the Davis Cup quarterfinals in Portland, but was bailed out when Borna Coric won the deciding fifth rubber to push Croatia into the next round.
On Sunday in Zagreb there would be no bailout, only the bitter taste of defeat for Croatia, who watched as their dream finish slowly faded and was swallowed up by an Argentinean wave that would not be denied.