VANCOUVER - They came, they saw, but they couldn't conquer.
With five championships — all of them since 2000 — the powerful Spanish Davis Cup team isn't accustomed to losing anywhere — home or away.
But this past weekend the Spaniards — still rated the No. 1 Davis Cup team despite losing last year's final to the Czech Republic — ran into a perfect storm of adversity and were upset 3-2 by 12th-ranked Canada in first-round 2013 World Group play at University of British Columbia.
The question Spanish tennis fans are probably asking now is whether the shocking defeat is nothing more than a one-off fluke or whether it's the harbinger of a long-term slide in the world rankings.
The normally-dominant Spaniards were missing their top four singles players — Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer, Nicolas Almagro and Fernando Verdasco — to a combination of injury (Nadal and Almagro) and fatigue (Ferrer and Verdasco).
Nadal, whose ranking has slipped to No. 5 during his absence due to sickness and knee problems, is scheduled to return to tournament play this week in Chile.
After losing both the opening-day singles matches Friday, the Spaniards staved off elimination Saturday when the highly-ranked doubles team of Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez defeated the Canadian duo of veteran Daniel Nestor and youngster Vasek Pospisil in five sets. But by Canada taking the doubles to the maximum number of sets it prompted Spanish captain Alex Corretja to pull the higher-rated Granollers, No. 34 in the world, from Sunday's first reverse singles and substituting the No. 82-ranked Guillermo Garcia-Lopez.
It was a gamble that didn't pay off as Canada's No. 1 Milos Raonic, the world's No. 15-rated player, quickly disposed of his Spanish opponent in straight sets 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 to clinch the series victory.
Spanish left-hander Albert Ramos, who lost to Raonic on Friday, made the final tie score 3-2 when he defeated Frank Dancevic 7-5, 6-4 in what is known in Davis Cup parlance as a dead rubber. It was Dancevic, ranked 166th, who scored the biggest — and most improbable — win of the series Friday when his upset Granollers in straight sets.
Corretja explained his decision to make the Sunday switch this way.
"Marcel had a long doubles match Saturday and on Friday he lost in straight sets in singles which was tough on him both mentally and physically. We knew Milos would be difficult to play no matter if it were Marcel or Guillermo. And we thought (substituting Garcia-Lopez) could be a surprise."
Garcia-Lopez, who was making his debut with the Davis Cup team, said he was hoping for a better result, but gave his best effort.
"It was great for me to get the opportunity to come here and play Davis Cup for Spain," said the 29-year-old native of La Roda. "It shows the depth of our team. I've been in the top 100 for nine years now and I couldn't play one Davis Cup match. For me today was really important. I tried to do my best. I'm really sorry for my country."
With the loss Spain drops down to the World Group relegation round and must win a tie in September to hold its position in the elite group of 16 nations for 2014. Spain's next opponent will be determined in a draw between all eight of this past weekend's first-round World Group losers.
If Spain continues to have injury problems and others continue to put tour play ahead of the Davis Cup then Spanish tennis could be in for a slide. The country still has plenty of depth — with 13 players currently ranked among the top 100. However, many of them are beginning to press the 30-year-old mark when singles players typically begin to see their performance dip.
There is, however, a group of promising juniors coming up in Spain. But until they prove themselves as pros nothing is a given.
"Spain also has a lot of young players," notes Garcia-Lopez. "But we don't know if they are going to be top-10 players like a Nadal or even a top-100 player. We have hope, yes. But it's too early to tell."
Corretja hopes the Spanish tennis fans understand the situation his team was in this past weekend.
"No. this doesn't mean Spanish tennis is on the way down," he said. "As soon as I knew we would be playing Canada in the first round in Canada and at this time of the year I knew it would be trouble getting players here. I knew Milos would be tough. I feel he can become a No. 1. And I knew players like Dancevic and Pospisil, on any day, were capable of an upset. I have no regrets. We had two players (Ramos and Garcia-Lopez) playing on the team for the first time. I'm happy and relaxed with their performance.
"We just have to go to the relegation round now and try to hold our spot in the World Group."