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Saturday, December 3, 2005
Ljubicic, Ancic help Croatia take 2-1 lead over Slovakia

Associated Press

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia -- If his younger teammates can deliver, Goran Ivanisevic will lift the Davis Cup trophy Sunday and take it home to Croatia for the first time.

Ivan Ljubicic and Mario Ancic beat Slovakia's Dominik Hrbaty and Michal Mertinak 7-6 (5), 6-3, 7-6 (5) Saturday, giving Croatia a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series between two first-time finalists.
Ivan Ljubicic
Ivan Ljubicic (left) or Mario Ancic can claim the Davis Cup for Croatia on Sunday with a singles win.

Croatia needs to win one of Sunday's reverse singles -- Ljubicic meets Hrbaty and Ancic plays Karol Kucera -- to clinch the title.

"It's definitely the most important match of my life, no question about that,'' Ljubicic said. "I have a little advantage because I've had a lot of these pressure matches.''

Ivanisevic, the former Wimbledon champion, came out of retirement for the final, but captain Nikki Pilic did not select him for either the singles or the doubles, choosing to go with his younger players.

With their win, Ljubicic and Ancic remain undefeated in Davis Cup doubles play this year.

Unless Pilic has a very sudden and unexpected change of heart Sunday, which he is allowed to do under the rules, Ivanisevic will be cheering his teammates from the sideline again.

Ivanisevic could start celebrating early if Ljubicic clinches Croatia's victory in the first match Sunday.

Croatian fans, roughly matching the number of Slovak supporters in the 4,000 capacity Sibamac Arena, were in a jolly mood Saturday, breaking into song after their team took the doubles.

Croatia was twice down a break in the first set and Slovakia served for the set, but the Croats came back on Ancic's good return off a Mertinak serve. Ljubicic then sealed the set with an ace in the tiebreaker.

"We were a bit nervous at the start and didn't play too well, but we settled in the second and came back strong,'' Ljubicic said. "I think we played one of our best Davis Cup doubles matches.''

Hrbaty dropped his serve twice in the second and that proved to be the difference.

Ancic wasted one match point in the third, but then put pressure on Hrbaty, who hit a forehand into the net to leave his team trailing 2-1.

"You can put it down to experience, which cannot be bought, it comes naturally,'' Ljubicic said. "We played like this all season, winning a rubber each day. I hope everything will be positive tomorrow.

"I have a 5-0 record over Hrbaty. Tomorrow is the greatest day of our tennis careers.''

Ancic, 1-4 in Davis Cup singles this year, has never played Kucera. The 31-year-old Slovak veteran plans to retire after the weekend. He's played only nine matches this year, losing five.

"It is by no means over yet,'' Ancic said. "We have an enormous day ahead of us.''

Ljubicic and Ancic topped the No. 1-ranked American twins Bob and Mike Bryan to help Croatia beat the United States in the first round of the World Group and launch the country's march toward the final.

Ljubicic moved within one victory of tying John McEnroe's 1982 record of 12 Davis Cup wins in a single year -- eight singles and four doubles.

All 11 of his victories have been in matches played with the overall result still at stake -- a record since the World Group format was created in 1981.

Three of McEnroe's victories were in dead rubbers when the result had already been decided.

If Croatia takes the title, Pilic will become the first captain to win the trophy for different nations. He led Germany to Davis Cup titles in 1988, 1989 and 1993.