SANTANDER, Spain - It wasn't meant to be, and if John McEnroe needed more evidence that his dream of captaining the United States to a Davis Cup on his first try was crumbling, he got it in the second game of the fifth set yesterday.
It was break point for Spain, already ahead 1-0 in the set, but there were Todd Martin and Chris Woodruff in the middle of the court, sending Alex Corretja deeper and deeper behind the ad court, in the corner, almost to the runway leading off the court.
Martin and Woodruff kept hitting overheads and Corretja kept finding a way to get them back.
"Chris hit a couple early in the point and I said, 'Don't hit it to Corretja,' " Martin said later. "Then I got one, the easiest one, and I hit to Corretja."
And then the ball was back again, from almost an impossible backhand angle. The Spaniards were back in a point that Juan Balcells would win with a shanked backhand winner into the open court.
"That's one of Alex's greatest qualities - his defensive skills," Martin said.
The Americans would recoup that fifth-set break, but the symbolism of Corretja's athletic returns and sheer refusal to give up on a point was the story of this Davis Cup semifinal, settled yesterday by Spain's makeshift doubles team of Corretja and Balcells, 7-6 (6), 2-6, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-3.
Having never won the Davis Cup, and without an appearance in the world group finals since 1976, Spain will play Australia in a December final as the favorite on the clay court surface that suits the players' dogged style so well.
McEnroe had considered yesterday to be the best U.S. chance to win any match here, after Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi pulled out, citing injury. Earlier in the week, before his players talked him out of playing, McEnroe had asked: "Who the hell is Juan Balcells?"
Yesterday, he found out, calling Corretja's unheralded partner "strong as an ox" and saying he had the "best 83-mile-an-hour" serve in tennis.
The Americans, as it turned out, played a game match but would go home lamenting a first set that Martin failed to serve out at 5-3, wasting two set points. In the tiebreaker, they had set point twice more but could not convert.
"Missed opportunities," McEnroe said. "The first set was ours. No way in the world we should have lost that set."