Ljubicic takes Croatia to the promised land

All year, in a consistent performance that surely puts him behind only Federer, Nadal, Safin in tennis achievement in 2005, Ivan Ljubicic was Croatia's man of the moment in the Davis Cup.

ROHIT BRIJNATH

Mario Ancic (left) and Ivan Ljubicic celebrate Croatia's thrilling victory in the Davis Cup final in Bratislava, Slovakia.-AP

ALL year he had endeavoured this shaven giant, undeterred by opposition, uncaring about surface, unmoved by foreign land, acknowledged as a fine player on the circuit yet somehow finer still when his small, young country called, but now when it mattered most, in the final, his body began to betray him.

All year, in a consistent performance that surely puts him behind only Federer, Nadal, Safin in tennis achievement in 2005, Ivan Ljubicic was Croatia's man of the moment in the Davis Cup. What did he do? No, what did he not?

He would go to America in March with his unknown team, representing a nation born only in 1991, and beat Agassi in straight sets and Roddick in five sets in singles and then the Bryan brothers in doubles beginning a streak of wonderful effrontery that would take his team to history and individually put him on the cusp of it.

He'd beat Romanians Victor Hanescu and Andre Pavel in July and yes, win the doubles, he'd beat Russians Michael Youzhny and Nikolay Davedenko in September, and of course, win the doubles, and then abruptly, he and Mario Ancic and Ivo Karlovic and Goran Ivanisevic and non-playing captain Niki Pilic were in the Cup finals against the Slovak Republic on their opponents' home turf.

Ivan Ljubicic can't stop now surely, he can see the cup through the corner of his eye, he is three matches away from equalling John McEnroe's 12-0 Cup record from 1982, and dutifully, expectedly, famously, he beats Karol Kucera in straight sets in the final, and then owns the doubles, and now Croatia is 2-1 up, everything in sight, Slovakian Dominik Hrbaty in front, history beckoning, when a pillow, a poor sleeping posture, something as simple and as absurd as that almost ruins it all.

On day three of the final, Ljubicic wakes up with a sore neck, decides at the last minute to play, has an adverse reaction to the pills he's taken and rushes off to vomit midway through the match. He goes five sets but in this last match of the year for him nothing is left and he folds. Later, he will admit to his discomfort, but add: "But I have to repeat that Dominik played an unbelievable match and it would be difficult anyway". Ljubicic 11-1 has not equalled McEnroe, but for some has surpassed him. Three of McEnroe's 12 wins were in dead rubbers, all of Ljubicic's 11 were live.

Hrbaty, meanwhile, not known for grand displays of emotion, throws his rackets, every single one of them into the crowd. He has 60 or more at home, but he's not thinking of that, only that it's 2-2 in the final. Later, he's asked, how does he do this, beat Ljubicic who has owned him, mastered him the past five times they have met, and Hrbaty tells the translator, and the translator says it perfectly: "The key success factor lies in two words: Davis Cup".

Later Hrbaty adds: "I can say that I don't quite understand the reason why I play so well in Davis Cup". It's OK, son, for over a century men have outdone themselves in cup play, found a reserve within they were sure they did not own, have been inspired to grand feats when the umpire says not "Game Hrbaty" but "Game Slovak Republic", and yet never been able to adequately explain it.

Hrbaty's team has upset the Spanish, rolled over the Dutch, surprised the Argentines, proving again that reputation is meaningless in this arena, ranking irrelevant, previous history unimportant, especially when it collides with pride. This event is special, no it is more, it is relevant, this putting of team before player appropriate, this ability to play for each other in a desperately individual, egoistical sport so becoming.

At 2-2, the Slovak captain, that famous court poet, Miloslav Mecir, has troubles. His No.2 player, Karol Beck, withdrew from the tie citing a knee injury though unconfirmed reports swirl that he allegedly failed a dope test in the semi-final tie. So Mecir played Kucera, now 31, old, tired, out of form and after his loss to Ljubicic, he needs another player for the deciding last match and he settles for the relatively unknown Michal Mertinak.

For Croatia there is one match to go to complete an improbable year, and perhaps it's not entirely inappropriate that Ljubicic lost, because Mario Ancic has been there beside him all year, the lanky, big-serving, Goran clone, and well, if this is about team, then he should have his say as well.

The Slovak Mertinak is a doubles player really, but Ancic will discount that, he will be ready, he will be edgy, for later captain Niki Pilic will tell him, "Mario if you lost, I kill you". Ancic wins, in straight sets 7-6, 6-3, 6-4, and then his shirt is off, and Lujubic is in his arms, and he says: "It's an unforgettable match and an unforgettable day. This has been a spectacular year for me." Disconsolate Mecir is, of course, but he is also full of grace. "We saw three days of world-class tennis and in the end the better team won. I congratulate Croatia."

Croatia is the 12th nation to win this Cup and it is a fine moment for tennis, this spreading of the cup, to small nations, lesser known ones, sparking small revolutions, keeping alive an ancient competition that is constantly under threat. Hold the cup once every two years, it is occasionally said, for the top players find it hard to fit it into their overburdened schedules. Maybe it is the schedules that should be fixed, not the cup. Hold the cup, in one place, over 2-3 weeks, it is said, so travel is cut down, but it is silly for the heart of this competition is home advantage, the point is for nations to see their teams, to become infected by the splendour of this event.

How important the cup is, is a question to be asked for Croatia. Goran won Wimbledon in 2001. Skier Janica Kostelic won three golds at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002. Now this is up there, with them, for some even higher. This year 134 nations take part in the Davis Cup. And the first unseeded team in 105 years wins. The idea still lives.