By Martyn Herman
MADRID (Reuters) – Rafael Nadal fired hosts Spain into the Davis Cup final as he joined Feliciano Lopez to win a thrilling late-night doubles and seal a nail-biting 2-1 victory over Britain on Saturday.
The world number one, playing like a man possessed, sent a capacity crowd in the Magic Box wild as he almost single-handedly hauled his country home and set up a final with Canada in the inaugural edition of the revamped competition on Sunday.
With the semi-final on a knife edge at 1-1 after the singles were shared, Nadal and veteran Lopez came through an electrifying doubles clash against Jamie Murray and Neal Skupski, winning 7-6(3) 7-6(8) to take five-time winners Spain into their first Davis Cup final since 2012.
Just as on the previous night against Argentina in the quarter-finals, Nadal first had to win his singles to drag his team level after Lopez was outplayed 6-3 7-6 by Kyle Edmund.
Nadal completed that task with a 6-4 6-0 win over Dan Evans, which extended his incredible run of Davis Cup singles wins to 28 since 2004, and, just like 24 hours earlier, he bounded back on court around half an hour later for a doubles decider.
In a match of gut-wrenching tension played in front of a frenzied soccer-style crowd in the 12,500-seater stadium, Nadal, 33, and Lopez, 38, squeezed out the first set on a tiebreak in which every single point felt like a drama.
With the clock ticking well past midnight yet again, the inspired British pair kept their noses in front on serve in the second set and when Lopez made a horrible mess of a smash on the Nadal serve at 5-6 they had a set point.
Nadal saved that one with a nerveless forehand winner down the line but there was more trouble for Spain in the tiebreak.
After an angry Nadal clashed with the umpire Britain led 6-4 but Lopez saved the first set point with a big serve and then Nadal produced miracles to flick a lob over Murray before putting away a smash as the Scot replied with a lob.
It felt like Nadal was tackling Britain on his own as he saved a fourth set point with a monstrous forehand that whistled past Murray. Three-time Grand Slam champion Andy Murray, sitting at courtside after being left out, could not look.
Spain then had a match point which Nadal miscued, but when Skupski bunted a volley long it meant Lopez had a service point to seal it, and he delivered.
“Rafa Rafa” the crowd bellowed as they saluted their hero and he will need them behind him again in Sunday’s climax against Canada at the end of an exhausting week.
“This competition is dramatic and with this new format even more,” Nadal said on court. “It was very close. We knew it was going to be a very tough battle. But we found a way.”
Lopez was close to tears at the end and who could blame him after the tension of two dramatic hours.
“I’m living the dream,” he said. “It’s a very special moment. Rafa hit an unbelievable lob when we were down in the break 6-4. We are really happy and have a great opportunity to hold this trophy tomorrow.”
Canada reached their first Davis Cup final after Denis Shapovalov and Vasek Pospisil, who have played every rubber for their side this week, beat Russian duo Andrey Rublev and Karen Khachanov as their semi-final also went to the wire.
Pospisil’s run of three straight singles wins here came to an end in the opener against an inspired Rublev, the Russian winning 6-4 6-4.
Shapovalov levelled the tie when he beat Khachanov 6-4 4-6 6-4 before the Canadian duo edged the doubles 6-3 3-6 7-6(5).
“I don’t think any of us expected that we could get this far,” Shapovalov said. “You have to have a little bit of luck on your side and just play some ridiculous tennis and play at a ridiculous level. It’s dream to be in the final.”
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Ken Ferris and Ed Osmond)