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Source: New York Times
By: Christopher Clarey

It has been Rafael Nadal's finest season: an extended run on the Paris clay, the English grass and a steamy Beijing hardcourt.

Now, one more major challenge awaits: a Davis Cup final in Argentina with the opposition and its public in a manic, hyper-motivated mood.

"The big problem is that we're going to be away from home against a team with a great group of players," Nadal said. "It's going to be difficult."

Difficult because Argentina has won 13 Davis Cup ties in a row at home and will get to pick the surface, which is almost certainly not going to be Nadal's favorite - red clay - and could quite possibly be a quick indoor court. Difficult too because Argentina now has an authentic and physically imposing phenomenon of its own in Juan Martín Del Potro, who turns 20 on Tuesday but was still a teenager on Sunday when he clinched his country's semifinal victory over Russia with surprising ease over Igor Andreev.

The Argentines - despite great talents past like Guillermo Vilas and José Luis Clerc - have never won the Davis Cup or even staged a Davis Cup final and will therefore not lack for inspiration in the last week of another long, draining tennis season.

The question is how much positive energy Nadal will have left after winning his fourth straight French Open, his first Wimbledon, his first Olympic gold medal and all but wrapping up the year-end No. 1 ranking.

Winning the Davis Cup would not be the same sort of novelty. Nadal has already won it, helping to lead Spain over the United States when he beat Andy Roddick on clay in the final in 2004 in Seville.

On Sunday, with Roddick trying the same light-brigade tactics of rushing the net whenever possible, Nadal beat him again on clay to clinch Spain's semifinal victory in Madrid's Las Ventas bullring. But even in lopsided triumph, there were small alarm bells ringing along with the ever-so-Spanish cheers of "olé" and "toreros." While training on Saturday, Nadal felt a strain in a buttocks muscle and decided to play on Sunday only after reviewing the results of a magnetic resonance imaging exam.

For a young man who has never been as healthy or successful in the second half of the season, it was a reminder that he needed to be reasonable in the two months between now and the Nov. 21 start of the Davis Cup final.

"I'm going to make one more push in November to arrive in good shape for the final and to do a good Masters Cup," Nadal said.

For now, he plans to play only three tournaments the rest of the year: the Masters Series event in Madrid, Oct. 13-19; the Masters Series event in Paris, Oct. 27-Nov. 2; and the Masters Cup in Shanghai, Nov. 10-16.

For the second time in three months, Nadal will then have to make a quick and brutal turnaround from China to the Americas for a major tennis moment. Last month, he tried and failed to conquer the jet lag and fatigue to win the United States Open after winning the gold medal in Beijing.

In November, he could have as little as three days to recover before having to face Del Potro or David Nalbandian and thousands of screaming Argentines in a different hemisphere and on a different continent.

The concern, of course, is not so much what happens to Nadal in Argentina, where the final is likely to be played in the capital, Buenos Aires. The concern is what will happen to Nadal in 2009 after all this late-season effort and travel.

Men's tennis has a fine thing going with Nadal and Roger Federer engaged in a classic rivalry, Novak Djokovic capable of beating either one of them and the young Scotsman Andy Murray in hot pursuit. What a pity it would be if benighted scheduling ended up killing some of the buzz, but then it is important to note that the top players themselves have lobbied for tighter turnaround times for Davis Cup.

Their argument is that the customary week of separation between a major event and a Davis Cup round is essentially a lost week. The top men, led by James Blake of the United States, have made it clear that they want to play Davis Cup in the week immediately after important individual tournaments. So it will be for this final, and so it will be for much of 2009, when the Davis Cup quarterfinals follow Wimbledon, and the Cup semifinals follow the United States Open.

But Nadal may not be the only jet-lagged man in Buenos Aires in November. Del Potro has been on quite a roll, winning four tournaments and reaching the quarterfinals of the United States Open. In just a season, he has matured from a gangly, 6-foot-5 raw talent to a fitter, more polished multisurface threat. Against Andreev and Nikolay Davydenko, whom he also beat in the Davis Cup semifinals, he was an offensive and defensive marvel. He covered the corners with his big wing span and used his leverage to slap big serves and winners.

No surprise then that he is now 10th in the 2008 points standings and has a good chance of being among the eight qualifiers for the Masters Cup in Shanghai.

Perhaps he and Nadal can charter a flight to Buenos Aires together.

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