THREE days of seesaw tennis battles ended in a 3-2 win for Croatia over Slovakia in the Davis Cup final in Bratislava from December 2-4.
After Slovak No 1 Dominik Hrbatý had shocked Croatian star Ivan Ljubicic in a five set victory earlier on December 4 (4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4), Slovakia's Michal Mertiňák succumbed in three sets to Croatian No. 2 Mario Ancic to end the best-of-five series between the two first-time finalists.
Croatia became the 12th champion in the competition's 105-year history. The Cup is the country's greatest success in a team event since its soccer team finished third at the 1998 World Cup, and arguably its biggest since independence in 1991.
The final match disappointed thousands of Slovak fans who had been bouyed by Hrbatý's surprise win, but Mertiňák, a 165th-ranked doubles specialist, never really had a chance against the 22nd ranked Ancic.
Karol Kučera, 31, had been scheduled to play the last match for Slovakia, but is close to retirement and has played little this year, so team captain Miroslav Mečíř tapped Mertiňák instead.
Hrbatý, ranked 19th in the world, had also been the underdog to Ljubicic, ranked 9th and enjoying a hot streak in Davis Cup play with an 11-1 record, including his Sunday defeat.
However, Ljubicic complained of neck pain during the match, and said he had vomited after taking pain killers.
Slovakia was missing its No 2, Karol Beck, who dropped out of the tournament on the day it began, December 2, with a knee injury, amid rumours that he had failed a doping test after Slovakia's semifinal victory over Argentina.
Beck denied the charges, which were spread by the Croatian team members, but was not among the members of the Slovak Davis Cup team nominated by the cabinet on December 7 to be awarded medals.
For more on the Davis Cup final, see the next issue of SPEX magazine, on stands December 19.
12. Dec 2005 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson