Croatia springs a big surprise

The Croatian team (from left) Lovro Zovko, Goran Ivanisevic, Mario Ancic and Ivan Ljubicic in a jubilant mood. — Pic. AP-The Croatian team (from left) Lovro Zovko, Goran Ivanisevic, Mario Ancic and Ivan Ljubicic in a jubilant mood. — Pic. AP

THE Davis Cup first round matches were held in different places from February 7 to 9. Quite a few of them sent shockwaves across the globe. The biggest of them all was the 1-4 upset of USA by Croatia at Zagreb. There were also some seat-edge thrillers; holder Russia's 3-2 win over Czech Republic, Switzerland posting an exciting 3-2 victory over Netherlands and Michel Kratochvil proving a point or two to his critics. Not to forget, Sweden's come-from-behind victory over Brazil.

Teenage sensation Mario Ancic completed a dream win for Croatia when he won the fifth and final rubber against Taylor Dent. Taking to the court after Ivan Ljubicic had clinched the tie for the home team, Ancic entered the stage to a hero's welcome in a carnival atmosphere.

He admitted that it took him a while to regain his concentration after celebrating with the rest of the team only moments earlier, but Ancic found his focus and defeated Dent 7-6 (7-5), 3-6, 7-6 (12-10) in an entertaining encounter.

The Croatians will prepare for a trip to Spain (defeated Belgium 5-0) in the quarterfinals in April.

"I wanted to show everybody that my first rubber against James Blake was a really bad day for me and I'm really glad I won this match," said Ancic. "We are not going to Spain to lose, we have a good team and this week has been unbelievable for me to play with the Davis Cup team. I really appreciated every moment and for sure after Key Biscayne (in March) I'm going to practise on clay to prepare for Spain."

Ljubicic also admitted it would be tough, but felt that Croatia have a decent chance. "Spain away is probably the worst draw that we could get," said Ljubicic. "They won the Davis Cup when they kept playing at home, but I have a 2-0 record against (Juan Carlos) Ferrero, and I have 3-0 against (Carlos) Moya so I'm not scared against anybody."

Australia scored a convincing 4-1 win over Great Britain. Without the services of Pat Rafter, Australia was a trifle weak, but in World No.1 Lleyton Hewitt and Mark Philippoussis, the Australians proved to be more than a handful for the Britains, who were severely handicapped by the absence of Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski.

Great Britain was able to salvage some pride when Alex Bogdanovic won the last reverse singles, which was a dead rubber. He defeated Todd Woodbridge, who replaced Mark Philippoussis 6-2, 7-6. Earlier, Wayne Arthurs, who came in for Lleyton Hewitt, defeated Miles Maclagan, a replacement for an injured Alan Mackin, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4.

"Any win is a good one, I think," said Australian captain John Fitzgerald. "There are no two ways to look at it. I think it was a closer tie than the results show, but a convincing win nonetheless...and probably one where we were on a little bit of a hiding to nothing, because of the strength of our team on paper and the Brits missing their two top ranked players. We're very pleased overall with the result."

"We played Sweden in the semifinals 18 months ago in Sydney. It will be a tough match because they are a traditional Davis Cup nation and they rise to the occasion in this competition. They play as a team always and they have a lot of history in recent times. They have a winning culture, so they are always going to be difficult to beat," said Fitzgerald.

Andreas Vinciguerra offered Sweden a sweet victory. Beaten in three straight sets by Gustavo Kuerten in the first rubber, Vinciguerra became Sweden's hero by clinching the decisive point with a 6-1, 7-5, 6-3 victory over Flavio Saretta. After Jonas Bjorkman won a breathtaking five-setter over Kuerten in the fourth rubber, it was up to `Vinci' to finish up the job for the home team against Saretta, who replaced Andre Sa at the last moment. When Saretta's last forehand return landed long, Vinciguerra ran into captain Mats Wilander's arms. Once again, Sweden had come back from a critical situation to win a Davis Cup tie. "It's an incredible feeling to win this last match," said Vinciguerra. In the quarterfinals, Sweden will host Australia in Malmo.

Notwithstanding the presence of Australian Open finalist Rainer Schuettler, Germany was drubbed 0-5 by Argentina. Gaston Gaudio wasted no time to give a perfect performance as his country cruised to a 5-0 victory. In just one hour 18 minutes, the 24-year-old Argentine defeated Germany's Lars Burgsmuller 6-3, 6-1 in the fifth and final rubber. Schuettler lost the first rubber to Gaudio.

Although the tie had already been decided, when David Nalbandian and Lucas Arnold established an unassailable 3-0 lead in the doubles rubber, the two "dead" singles were nonetheless strongly contested in front of a packed arena.

Even though the Argentine squad had already celebrated in style, it saw no reason not to continue the celebrations after the fifth rubber. The champagne came out once again and Gaudio threw his shirt into the crowd in jubilation. From the celebrations both on and off the court, it was evident just how much Davis Cup competition means to Argentina.

"I am very happy that Argentina has very few limits at the moment. I think that if it (Davis Cup glory) doesn't come this year then it's going to be soon. "If all of the six or seven players on the squad really believe in themselves then I think Argentina can win anywhere and against anyone. It's up to them and it's up to me to convince them," said captain Luza. Argentina will face defending champions Russia next, who edged past Czech Republic 3-2.

Russia began its quest to defend the Davis Cup title in the best way. Promising youngster Nikolay Davydenko became the new hero. Number 62 on the entry ranking, Davydenko won the fifth match beating Radek Stepanek (ranked no. 55) 1-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-2, 3-6, 6-0.

The match was pretty important for both competitors, each playing the Davis Cup for the first time. "I am really very happy because this is one of the biggest days of my career. This tie was broadcast to Russia so now everybody at home knows not only Safin, Kafelnikov and Youzhny but also me", Davydenko said. It was only his second five-set match and the first he had won. "But it was so hard, not only physically but psychologically. I knew that if I lose my team will lose too."

The result of the fifth set was probably too cruel for the home team - all the Czech Republic's losses in Davis Cup since 1998 have been in the decisive fifth rubber.

Switzerland rolled into the quarterfinals with a hard-fought 3-2 win over Netherlands, in a match, which was a personal triumph for its second singles player Michel Kratochvil. The 25-year-old from Bern came out for his sixth live Davis Cup rubber, having lost the previous five, and after the five-set defeat to Sjeng Schalken there were mutterings about possible mental frailties. But in the decisive singles against The Netherlands' Martin Verkerk, Kratochvil showed tremendous nerve to overcome a horrific start and win 1-6, 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (8-6), 6-1.

"It's unbelievable," he said. "It's one of the biggest wins of my career, my first win at 2-2, I'm very happy. I always said I didn't have a mental weakness, but I think now even those who had doubts will forget them."

The match had immense drama, notably in the second of the two tie-breaks. It had five contentious line calls, two overrules as umpire Roland Herfel found himself in the middle of the action, and a set point played with a level of noise normally associated more with basketball than tennis. When Kratochvil overhit a forehand at 5-4, he gave Verkerk two set points. The Swiss saved one with a big serve, and then watched in relief as a Verkerk forehand went into the tramlines.

Then with Kratochvil serving at 7-6, he waited for silence to descend down, but it never came. So getting the nod from Herfel, he served, the Dutch thought the serve was out, but Verkerk wisely played it. When Kratochvil won the point to take a two-sets-to-one lead, the Dutch team and supporters went wild with anger.

Tjerk Bogstra said: "It's disappointing how the line calls went, the line judges weren't on our side, but we lost the match not because of that but because Martin didn't finish the tie-breaks in the second and third sets. If he'd come up with some good serves we would have won 3-0."

The win means the Swiss will travel to France for a quarterfinal against the 2001 champions (who defeated Romania 4-1). En route to that title, France beat Switzerland in the quarterfinals on an 8-6 final set in the decisive rubber, Nicolas Escude saving a match point before beating George Bastl. Not only will the Swiss have a chance of revenge, but they have now broken a series that was beginning to become a monkey on their back. Their last three defeats have all been in live fifth rubbers, and with the confidence Kratochvil will pick up from this win, the French will have to be at full strength to beat this increasingly confident Swiss team which is no longer dependent only on Roger Federer.

The results (I round):

Croatia bt USA 4-1 (Ljubicic bt Fish 7-5, 6-3, 6-4; Ancic lost to Blake 1-6, 2-6, 6-7 (5); Ivanisevic & Ljubicic bt Blake & Fish 3-6, 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4, 6-4; Ljubicic bt Blake 6-3, 6-7 (5-7), 6-4, 6-3; Ancic bt Dent 7-6 (7-5), 3-6, 7-6 (12-10)).

Australia bt Britain 4-1 (Philippoussis bt Mackin 6-3, 6-3, 6-3; He<147,4,1>witt bt Bogdanovic 7-5, 6-1, 6-2; Hewitt & Woodbridge bt Maclagan & Parmar 6-1, 6-3, 4-6, 6-2; Arthurs bt Maclagan 4-6, 6-1, 6-4; Woodbridge lost to Bogdanovic 2-6, 6-7 (4)).

Sweden bt Brazil 3-2 (Vinciguerra lost to Kuerten 1-6, 4-6, 4-6; Bjorkman bt Sa 6-4, 5-7, 6-2, 4-6, 6-1; Bjorkman & Larsson lost to Kuerten & Sa 6-4, 2-6, 5-7, 6-2, 6-2; Bjorkman bt Kuerten 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 4-6, 6-1; Vinciguerra bt Saretta 6-1, 7-5, 6-3).

France bt Romania 4-1 (Grosjean bt Voinea 6-2, 6-3, 7-6 (12-10); Escude bt Pavel 7-6 (7-2), 6-2, 7-6 (7-5); Llodra & Santoro bt Pavel & Trifu 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (4); Santoro lost to Hanescu 1-6, 4-6; Escude bt Trifu 7-6 (7-3), 4-6, 6-4).

Switzerland bt Netherlands 3-2 (Kratochvil lost to Schalken 3-6, 5-7, 6-1, 6-4, 4-6; Federer bt Sluiter 6-2, 6-1, 6-3; Haarhuis & Verkerk lost to Bastl & Federer 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 7-5; Federer bt Schalken 7-6 (7-2), 6-4, 7-5; Kratochvil bt Verkerk 1-6, 7-6 (7-5), 7-6 (8-6), 6-1).

Argentina bt Germany 5-0 (Gaudio bt Schuettler 6-2, 6-3, 6-0; Nalbandian bt Burgsmuller 6-1, 7-6 (7-4), 7-5; Arnold & Nalbandian bt Kohlomann & Schuettler 6-1, 0-6, 4-6, 6-1, 6-2; Chela bt Prinosil 6-4, 6-1; Gaudio bt Burgsmuller 6-3, 6-1).

Russia bt Czech Rep. 3-2 (Davydenko lost to Novak 4-6, 6-4, 1-6, 1-6; Kafelnikov bt Stepanek 3-6, 7-6 (10-8), 6-7 (6-8), 6-2, 6-3; Kafelnikov & Youzhny bt Damm & Suk 7-6 (7-1), 4-6, 6-3, 6-3; Kafelnikov lost to Novak 2-6, 3-6, 6-7(5-7); Davydenko bt Stepanek 1-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-2, 3-6, 6-0).

Spain bt Belgium 5-0 (Ferrero bt Rochus 6-3, 6-2, 7-5; Moya bt Malisse 7-6 (7-2), 6-1, 7-6 (7-5); Corretja & Costa bt Rochus & Vliegen 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 3-6, 8-6; Ferrero bt Vliegen 6-1, 6-4; Moya bt Rochus 6-2, 6-2).