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Slovakia's Davis Cup - famous victory that wasn't

In its April 3-5 Davis Cup world group debut in Bratislava, the ambitious Slovak team succumbed to injury-depleted defending champion Sweden in the first round contest due to a powerful, champion-like comeback by Sweden's Magnus Norman and Magnus Gustafsson, both of whom won close singles matches to propel Sweden into July's quarterfinals versus Germany.
After Friday's singles, Slovakia was ahead 2-0, with number two Dominik Hrbatý (number 57 in the ATP rankings) jumpstarting the duel by beating Sweden's number one Norman (23) in a bang-bang, tough forehand-filled five set contest, 7-6(7-5), 4-6, 6-4, 3-6, 6-2. In the following match, number one Karol Kučera (12) boosted Slovakia's hopes by elegantly downing Sweden's number two, Mikael Tillström (88) in four sets, 1-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4.


What might have been. Dominik Hrbatý (left) and Coach Miloslav Mečíř watch in dismay as Slovakia loses the battle.
Peter Pospíšil

In its April 3-5 Davis Cup world group debut in Bratislava, the ambitious Slovak team succumbed to injury-depleted defending champion Sweden in the first round contest due to a powerful, champion-like comeback by Sweden's Magnus Norman and Magnus Gustafsson, both of whom won close singles matches to propel Sweden into July's quarterfinals versus Germany.

After Friday's singles, Slovakia was ahead 2-0, with number two Dominik Hrbatý (number 57 in the ATP rankings) jumpstarting the duel by beating Sweden's number one Norman (23) in a bang-bang, tough forehand-filled five set contest, 7-6(7-5), 4-6, 6-4, 3-6, 6-2. In the following match, number one Karol Kučera (12) boosted Slovakia's hopes by elegantly downing Sweden's number two, Mikael Tillström (88) in four sets, 1-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4.

For Saturday's doubles, Slovakia coach Miloslav Mečíř rested Kučera to keep him fresh for the return singles on Sunday as the hosts didn't hide the fact that they wanted to advance past the Swedes via singles. Kučera even made a bold prediction before the contest that Slovakia would win 4-1 overall.

Youngsters Ján Krošlák and Martin Hromec, knowing they were underdogs, didn't make an exceptional effort and dropped the doubles to Mikael Tillström and Magnus Larsson in three straight, 2-6, 3-6, 4-6.

The win boosted Sweden's hopes for a comeback and gave more credibility to Sweden coach Carl-Axel Hageskog's assertion after Friday's singles that both teams' chances were still 50:50.

Larsson led the parade of another two Magnuses who on Sunday completed the 0-2 to 3-2 turnaround, the fifth time a Swedish team has made such a comeback in Davis Cup history. The Swedish name Magnus is derived from the Latin word for "large," and the two Swedish players certainly came out big, although one was making his Davis Cup debut while the other was a grizzled veteran.

In the battle of number ones, Norman began extremely strong and confident, relying on his serve. Kučera levelled the game with his efficient forehand and devastating winners, but unlike Norman, he mixed excellent groundstrokes with poor ones.

Norman took the match, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 in three hours and 24 minutes, after Kučera produced consecutive double faults in the eighth game of the fifth to drop his serve.

"That was crucial," the downcast Kučera said of the double faults after the game.

The decisive point was to be played in a generational duel as 22-year-old Hrbatý stood against 31-year-old Gustafsson who, nursing a cold, was pulled out of bed on Saturday evening.

In a match that will not be remembered as a classic, Hrbatý produced 52 unforced errors to Gustafsson's 41, while Gustafsson produced 13 double faults to Hrbatý's four. "I think he was luckier rather than better," Hrbatý said with a smile.

Plagued by injuries, illness and withdrawals, the Swedes simply had to pray for luck. World number eight Jonas Björkman had been ruled out with a throat infection and 20th-ranked Thomas Enqvist could not play because of elbow problems. Casting further gloom over Swedish prospects, doubles' specialist Nicklas Kulti elected to stay with his family after becoming a father.

That's why Hageskog was so overjoyed that his team had made it through. "It's always nice when you can make such a comeback, but I don't think I can go through any more of them," he said, "my heart isn't strong enough."

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