The Ultimate Triumph
BY JEFFREY LESSER
Croatians and croatophiles alike, the time to celebrate is now. On December 4th, 2005 in Bratislava, Slovak Republic, the
greatest team achievement in Croatian history took place. Under the leadership of Ivan Ljubicic and Mario Ancic, the Croatian men’s tennis team won what is by far the most important team event in all of tennis, the Davis Cup.
The Croatians won the year-long four-round event after beginning their conquest in February, defeating the United States’
dream team that featured Andy Roddick, Andre Agassi, and the Bryan Brothers, who had never lost even a set in doubles in five previous Davis Cup appearances. Ancic and Ljubicic then took their two man wrecking crew back home to Croatia, where they faced Romania, defeating the overmatched Andrei Pavel and Victor Hanescu by a 4-1 margin. Then the Croatians, on the strength of Ivan Ljubicic’s five set win over Mikhail Youzhny on the first day and a Ljubicic-Ancic doubles victory on the second, defeated Russia in the semifinals. This set them up for their showdown against the Slovaks.
The first Davis Cup final ever to feature two unseeded teams did not disappoint. In the first match, Ivan Ljubicic, who had been on fire in the latter half of the year, shooting up in the world rankings to an all-time high of number nine in the world, faced 308th-ranked Karol Kucera, who filled in for an ailing Karol Beck. The match was as lopsided as the rankings would suggest, as Ljubicic simply overpowered the hapless Slovak, 6-3 6-4 6-3. Although the Croatian section had much to cheer for in an otherwise-partisan arena, only one point was secured for the Croatians. Team victory required three points, not just one. What was perhaps most amazing about this victory was that it was Ivan Ljubicic’s tenth Davis Cup match win. After the match, he had a record of 7-0 in singles and 3-0 in doubles for the year in Davis Cup competition. Every one of his wins took place when the outcome of the tie was still undecided— before Croatia secured three match wins. Nobody in the history of the event has ever secured so meaningful many wins in one year.
In the second match of the day, the solid Slovak number one, Dominik Hrbaty, defeated Mario Ancic in four long sets. After
day one of the final, it was Croatia, 1; Slovak Republic, 1. Because the first day left the teams knotted up at one, the doubles became more important than ever. The winner would have to win only one of the two singles matches on Sunday to secure its respective nation’s first ever Davis Cup title. Ancic and Ljubicic, despite a shaky start, overcame their Slovak foes, Hrbaty and Michal Mertinak, in the first set in a tight tiebreak. The next set, and the match, fell to the Croatians, sending the fans and players into frenzy. After a 7-6(5) 6-3 7-6(5) victory, Croatia was up 2-1 in the finals. One more win would not only secure Ivan Ljubicic a perfect year in Davis Cup, but also possession of the Davis Cup.
Croatian fans could sense victory as soon as it was announced that Ivan Ljubicic would be facing Dominik Hrbaty in the first
match on Sunday. Ljubicic had a 5-0 career record against Hrbaty and, more importantly, an undefeated record in Davis Cup to date. After easily notching the first set, an ailing Ljubicic shockingly dropped the next two to the Slovak, who was clearly rising to the occasion, playing one of the best matches of his career. Still, Ljubicic, who had vomited in between sets and called the decision on whether or not he would play “one of the toughest decisions of my career,” found a way to win the fourth set. In a match of indescribable intensity and fan passion with so much at stake, Ljubicic finally folded to the home fans’ pressure in the tenth game of the fifth set, serving at 4-5. Hrbaty had won the match, 4-6 6-3 6-4 3-6 6-4, and not only prevented Croatian triumph but had stopped the previously unstoppable Ljubicic, handing Ljubicic his first Davis Cup defeat of the year.
Hrbaty’s victory guaranteed that the winner of the fifth match would take home the Cup. The fate of the Davis Cup rested on
the broad shoulders of 21-year-old Mario Ancic, who was to face Michal Mertinak, thrown into the singles equation in place of the ineffective Karol Kucera. Mertinak, more known for his doubles play than his singles and ranked only 162 in the world, started off well against the 22nd-ranked Ancic, forcing a tiebreak against the 6’5’’ Croat. Ancic, the heavy favorite in the match, easily won the tiebreak, giving Croatia a one set edge in the decisive battle. The second set was much easier for Mario, who brought Croatia painfully close to the coveted Cup. After an early break in the third set, Ancic lost his serve for the first time in the match to even up the third set, giving Slovak fans hope once again. However, Mertinak lost his serve at 4-4 in the third set, allowing Mario to serve for the match and the Davis Cup. Ancic came through. The Croatians had won the ultimate prize of team tennis, the Davis Cup!
The celebration was only fitting. Ljubicic jumped into the arms of Ancic on the court, and both jumped up and down in each
other’s arms. Watching the Tennis Channel, which provided live coverage of the events, and in the comforts of my own home, I followed suit. When I saw how happy Ljubicic was (he called himself “the happiest loser in the world”), I cried. Croatia won the Davis Cup!
Partying will ensue all over Croatia. Tennis fans will not underestimate the prestige of the Davis Cup, and neither should you.
Give Ancic and Ljubicic praise where it is due— which, right now, is everywhere.For at least 2005, Croatian tennis is the best in the world.