Spain have booked on Saturday a spot in their first Davis Cup final in 33 years, when they dismissed a last ditch challenge by the United States to take an unbeatable 3-0 lead in their semi-final World Group.
Spanish number one Alex Corretja and Juan Balcells saw off a determined five-set effort by American duo Todd Martin and Chris Woodruff 7-6 (8/6), 2-6, 6-3, 6-7 (5/7), 6-3.
Albert Costa and Corretja gave the Spaniards a comfortable two point lead when they swept Friday's opening day singles, defeating Martin 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 and Jan-Michael Gambill 1-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 in the best-of-five series.
The win was greeted with euphoria by the enthusiastic home crowd at the 10,500-seat temporary stadium at Real Sociedad de Tenis de la Magdalena in the northern Spanish resort town of Santander.
The Spanish team will now bid to win their country's first Davis Cup title in the tournament's 100-year history, when they meet Australia, who last weekend demolished Brazil 5-0 in Brisbane.
"This a real success for Spanish tennis and one we have been looking for years and years," said Spanish captain Javier Duarte.
"It's obvious that the doubles functioned very well in the preliminary rounds this year and we repeated this. We have to go step by step to finish off the final now," he added.
Spain, forced to qualify for the 2000 World Group after losing to Brazil in last year's opening round, were finalists in 1965 and 1967 but have never lifted the silver bowl.
"It's a story of missed opportunities," was how US Captain John McEnroe summed up their failed bid.
"It's obviously too bad. We deserved to win today. We couldn't get the breaks. Unfortunately it happens, and this isn't the first or the last time you'll see it on this stuff (clay)," he added.
In a last ditch effort to stay in the tie and make the scoreboard "respectable" McEnroe changed his doubles lineup replacing Vince Spadea, who only broke a 21-match losing streak at Wimbledon, with Martin, just back from injury.
But Spanish clay court specialists Corretja, ranked seventh in the world and Balcells, ranked just 98th, were too strong for the Americans and were able to pull out the winning shots when necessary.
Although not strong doubles players the pressure was not on the Spanish and they were relaxed knowing that they could lose Saturday's rubber and still have a chance during Sunday's two reverse singles.
However, the US team had all to play for and opened the first set strongly, breaking their opponent's serve in the fourth game to take a 3-1 lead.
The Spanish broke back in the seventh game, but the Americans had another chance when they again broke in the eighth.
But Corretja and Balcells equaled at 5-5 bringing the game to a tiebreak, which the Spaniards wrapped up 8-6 after the US, threw away a three-point advantage.
Afterwards Martin said that missing the opportunity to take the first set scuppered their entire match.
"They played a great first set. We had tons of opportunities. I had a set point on my serve and on my return," said Martin, adding that he was surprised by the power of Balcells' serve.
"Yeah, he has the greatest 83kmh serve on the circuit. He's built like an ox," joked McEnroe.
Woodruff, the hero of America's first round match against Zimbabwe, said he suffered from nerves on court.
"I had trouble getting myself going. I played with too much fear in the first set and I think that was a problem," Woodruff said.
"I felt the pressure. When Todd served for the first set instead of taking the advantage I sat back and was passive," he added.
The Americans came back in the second winning 6-2 after gaining two decisive service breaks to wrap up the set in 31 minutes.
But again the Spanish had an answer and broke service in the third to win the set 6-3 in 27 minutes.
However, the US were determined not to go home as losers and although the highly-motivated Spanish came back from a 5-2 deficit in the fourth set, the Americans forced a fifth-set by winning the tie-break 7/5.
The Spanish broke serve early in the final set to build up a three game lead, the US broke Corretja's serve in the fifth game, but the home side went on to win the final set 6-3, winning the rubber in just over 4hr 02min.
There was nothing McEnroe could do to rally his flagging players.
In the absence of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, the demoralized US squad entered this tie as underdogs.
With no top twenty players, they failed to find their feet on clay against Spaniards determined that 2000 is to be their Davis Cup year.
The US team only arrived in Spain on Monday after last playing on grass at Wimbledon, while the Spaniards, who pulled out of Wimbledon in a row over seeding, had spent the past few weeks training on the slower clay surface.
They were confident enough to leave one of the their best players, French Open semi-finalist Juan Carlos Ferrero, on the sidelines.
In-form French Open quarter-finalist Corretja also tuned up for the tie by lifting the Swiss Open last Monday, his second title of the year after the Masters Series event at Indian Wells in March.
The outcome makes Sunday's scheduled reverse singles of Corretja versus Martin, followed by Costa versus Gambill, now just a formality.
The USA led their five previous Davis Cup meetings 3-1, last defeating the Spaniards 4-1 in the 1991 quarter-finals in Newport, Rhode Island – (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)