Raul Ramirez

Another Croatian Surprise?

Croatia stands just one win away from a third incredible win over the United States in Davis Cup play. Croatia, in fact, is the only nation the United States has never beaten in Davis Cup play and it will remain as such unless James Blake and Mardy Fish can sweep Marin Cilic and Ivo Karlovic in Sunday’s reverse singles. On Saturday, Bob and Mike Bryan defeated Roko Karanusic and Lovro Zovko 6-3, 6-1, 6-3, cutting the Croatian lead from 2-0 to 2-1.

After losing to Croatia 3-2 in the opening round of the 2003 competition, the United States was again upset by Croatia in the first round in 2005, despite the United States having Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and the Bryan twins on the squad. That 2005 upset – a match that was ultimately the Davis Cup swan song for Agassi – is documented below.

The day after returning back in New York after the 2004 Davis Cup Final in Sevilla, Spain, where the U.S. lost 3-2 to the Carlos Moya/Rafael Nadal led Spanish team, U.S. Davis Cup Captain Patrick McEnroe called into the nationally-syndicated morning radio and MSNBC cable show “Imus in the Morning,” where host Don Imus and his sports reporter Sid Rosenberg had been ridiculing McEnroe for the final round loss to Spain – or as Imus described “a team of leaf blowers and cab drivers.” McEnroe was introduced onto the program as the “tennis terrorist” in that he had embarrassed the United States to the largest degree.

After taking the playful ribbing, McEnroe told “the I-man” and gang that he wanted to have a serious reflection on the Davis Cup Final, stating that he felt proud in the way that he and his team represented the United States in Spain and that the conduct and sportsmanship displayed by his team “had restored a little respect for our country in a part of the world where the U.S. is not looked upon in the most positive way” in reference to Spain’s recent objection to the foreign policy of the United States, most notably the war in Iraq.

“Next year,” Pmac then boasted. “We’re going to bring back the Cup I-man.”

Imus, quick with the retort, then stated, “When the authorities find you, they’re going to ask that you give it back.”

The United States had drawn a first round home tie against Croatia and the USTA selected The Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles, as the site of the contest. Los Angeles is a town that like stars and while the U.S. Davis Cup team did have a star in Andy Roddick, the one star that it was missing was one Andre Agassi.

McEnroe had always kept Agassi in the loop as far as Davis Cup goes since taking over as captain and, after asking him to play in the Final against Spain, sensed that Agassi was considering a return to Davis Cup in 2005. McEnroe began to push the buttons again at the Australian Open, where Agassi first addressed his possible comeback after his second round romp over Rainer Schuettler.

“I’m going to have this discussion with Patrick, just because he’s made the effort to want to have conversations with me about it, so I’ll be respectful of that,” said the 34-year-old Agassi. “But it’s just two-fold. I have a lot of regret not playing because it’s one of the best memories of my career, playing Davis Cup, not to mention playing with another generation of guys that have such a good fellowship and team camaraderie together. To experience that would be a great feeling. But the other side of the coin is really what my decision has come down to in the past, which is what can I really do. I’ve never been a big fan of being halfway playing at your convenience. It’s always been something I haven’t respected a whole lot in the past when it’s come to that for others. The decision I had to make is not an easy one and it hasn’t been easy, but it’s something I’ll discuss with him.”

A few days after Agassi’s quarterfinal loss to Roger Federer, McEnroe phoned Agassi at his home in Las Vegas and offered to sit down with him in person en route back to New York after the Australian Open. Agassi told McEnroe he was still hung up on the year-long commitment that he expected he would have to give to Davis Cup. On Monday January 31, McEnroe arrived in Los Angeles from Melbourne and stopped off in Carson for a media luncheon to promote the USA vs. Croatia tie. McEnroe then revealed to the gathered guests and media that he was en route to Las Vegas that evening to meet with Agassi.

”I think (Agassi) finds that right now, it’s hard for him to commit to every match because of his family and his responsibilities and because he is going to be 35 and it’s a little taxing on him,” McEnroe told the assembled press. “My job is to alleviate his fear that we don’t necessarily have to have him play ever match… I don’t need to hear from Andre ‘I’m going to play every match.’ My feeling is, let’s see how it goes. Let’s get you to play in the first round and let’s see what happens and take it from there.”

McEnroe tagged his chances at “less than 50-50” before boarding the AmericaWest Airlines flight to Las Vegas. “I don’t have any expectation other than I hope he says yes,” said McEnroe. “I have to field the best team I can and I have to exhaust all possibilities. If that means getting on a plane and sitting down with him face to face, than that’s a small price to play for trying to get him to join up.”

McEnroe met Agassi and his coach Darren Cahill for a two-and-a-half hour dinner at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. The three reminisced about Davis Cup stories of old, talked of the passion of the current group of Davis Cuppers and addressed the concerns and issues that Agassi had with committing to Davis Cup. McEnroe later said he told Agassi, “Don’t cut off your options by saying it’s all or nothing, because to me it’s not. We’ve never had a year where we’ve had the same four guys every match. It’s too unrealistic for that to happen, with injuries, with different surfaces, with schedules, you name it.” McEnroe said he, the team and the tennis industry in general would not hold it against him if he could not commit for every match in 2005.

Two days later, after consulting with others in his inner circle – most notably his wife Steffi Graf -  Agassi phoned McEnroe to tell him to count on him to be in Carson. Agassi then called all the members of the team – Roddick, the Bryan twins and Taylor Dent (who would travel to Carson as the “fifth” player on the four-man team and would have been the No. 2 singles player had Agassi not decided to play) – to get their approval on his returning to the team. On Monday, February 7, McEnroe made the Agassi news public in a conference call with the media.

“We’re going to take it one match at a time,” said McEnroe in explaining Agassi’s commitment to the team. “It’s not just this match. It’s not every match. I think it’s a case-by-case basis situation. He’s not coming back simply to play because it happens to be the week before Indian Wells. At the same time, I didn’t ask him to say, “Are you going to play every match?’ I understand where he is in his career, personally, professionally with all the different things on his plate. We will take it one step at a time…To me, it doesn’t make any sense to say to him, ‘Listen, you’ve got to play every match.” Things happen, things come up, whether it’s injuries, whether it’s having a tough major, whether it’s not having a tough major and maybe wanting some extra matches. I think you have to take all those things into account and understand that Andre is going to make the decision based on a variety of factors.”

Two days later, Agassi first addressed his return to Davis Cup following his first round win over xx in San Jose, Calif.

“What had a big influence on me was the camaraderie I saw last year,” said Agassi. “They’ve built a great team and are a part of something I never got to experience. I played Davis Cup with guys who were fighting to be the best in the world and everyone had a sense of their own goals…This group of guys really seems to look out for each other. I respect and admire it a lot.”

Agassi again addressed his absence from Davis Cup for five years, citing the demanding schedule and the difficultly in committing to potentially four ties during a calendar year, especially at age 34 with a wife and two children.

“I had gotten to a point that I didn’t have enough to give anymore when it came to the full goal of winning the Cup,” said Agassi. “I did it for 12 years and wasn’t convinced I could do it anymore and accomplish the things I needed to stay out here for the last few years. I never respected those guys who played at their convenience and didn’t play all times. Patrick was the first captain to show a strong sense of understanding and support in knowing it’s not realistic for me to play every tie.”

Roddick was estactic at the news and struggled to stay composed when Agassi reached him by phone while Roddick was in his car in driving several of his buddies around his hometown of Austin. Said Roddick, “I told him I was excited he was on board and then hung up the phone and started screaming.”

While the Agassi hype was substantial, insiders were paying close attention to the progress of the Croatian team. Ivan Ljubicic, who had almost single handedly defeated the United States in Zagreb two years prior in the first round, was fast becoming the hottest player on the circuit. Entering Davis Cup week, he posted three straight final round appearances in Marseille, Rotterdam and Dubai – the latter two losing to world No. 1 Roger Federer in three tight sets. Ancic had reached the semifinals of Marseille (losing to Ljubicic) and Rotterdam (losing to Federer) and had reached his second career ATP singles final in Scottsdale, Ariz., the week before Davis Cup. With Ljubicic and Ancic boasting a bronze medal in men’s doubles from the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the Bryan twins would also face a stern test. Cautioned Ancic, “In Davis Cup, there are many surprises.” Croatian Captain Niki Pilic, who also captained Germany to Davis Cup victories over the United States in 1985, 1987 and 1989, echoed the sentiment of his young charge. “In Davis Cup,” he said, “there are no rules.”

To add to the intrigue of the first round tie, Roddick suffered a scare during his quarterfinal win over Robby Ginepri at the ATP event in Memphis, spraining his ankle just two weeks before the start of the tie. Roddick chose to default his semifinal match with Kenneth Carlsen of Denmark rather than risk further injury that would jeopardize his form for the tie with Croatia.

“The repercussions of this injury won’t just affect me, but they’d affect my teammates it would affect me playing for my country as well,” said Roddick. “That’s a lot of responsibility that I have to take into consideration.”

Gavin Rossdale of the rock band “Bush” and the husband of rock star Gwen Stefani pulled the ceremonial chip at the Davis Cup draw ceremony at The Home Depot Center that placed Andre Agassi against Ivan Ljubicic in the opening rubber of the best-of-five match series. Roddick would follow against Ancic, while the Bryan twins would face Ancic and Ljubicic in Saturday’s doubles contest. Whether it was nerves, discomfort with the cool, blustery conditions or Ljubicic’s game, Agassi showed distress and tentativeness as his return to Davis Cup began at 1 pm Los Angeles time on Friday, March 4. There was no swagger in the legend’s step or game as Ljubicic swept the first set 6-3. Agassi got out of his funk in the second set, taking a 5-2 lead, but faltered when serving for the second at 5-3 and was skunked 7-0 in the second set tie-break to go down two-sets-to-love. The eventual 6-3, 7-6 (0), 6-3 loss marked only the third time that Agassi has been dismissed in straight sets in 36 Davis Cup singles matches.

His anger and displeasure was apparent on his face as he briskly left the court for the U.S. team locker room where his Head tennis racquet was tendered to multiple fragments scattered throughout the locker room within minutes.

“Today was one of those days,” said a dazed Agassi in the post-match press conference. “I just never got settled and never got comfortable. It was just frustrating. You’re trying hard to figure things out and sometimes you wonder if you’re just trying too hard…I was useless to be quite honest, as far as being clear on what was going on out there.“

Said McEnroe, “Everybody gets nervous playing Davis Cup – even Andre Agassi.”

Down 0-1, the match virtually sat on the shoulders of Roddick against Ancic, who quickly bounced upon the tentative Roddick taking the first set 6-4 as panic began to set in among the American hopefuls.  The second set marked the start of “the street fight” as Roddick’s trainer Doug Spreen would later describe the Roddick swagger and attitude, that translated the match into a 4-6, 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 victory for the American – tying the first day’s play at 1-1.

‘I’m not going to lie, I was really tight during the first set today,” admitted Roddick. “I’m happy because I was able to dig down…I think this was a big steppingstone for me.”

The Bryans entered the pivotal doubles match on Saturday having not lost a set in Davis Cup play in their previous five matches. However, the twins from Camarillo, Calif., knew that Ljubicic and Ancic were by far the best team they had faced in Davis Cup play.

Jumping like a pair of Mexican jumping beans, the Bryans were quick out of the blocks to take the first set 6-3 in just 27 minutes, but Ljubicic and Ancic would stay tight in the second set, forcing a tie-break. The Bryans would hold three set points, including one of Mike Bryan’s serve at 7-6, but were unable to deliver what would be a near lethal two-sets-to-love blow. They surrendered the second set tie-break – and their first ever set in Davis cup play – 10 points to eight and gave new life to Ancic and Ljubicic. As the Croatians gained in confidence, the Bryans appeared drained and dismayed. As the sun dripped below the Pacific Ocean just xx miles away, conditions became cooler and slower, helping Ljubicic and Ancic close out the final two sets for the vital 3-6, 7-6 (8), 6-4, 6-4 win and the 2-1 lead for Croatia heading into the climatic third day.

Former Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers basketball coach Phil Jackson entered the U.S. team locker room to try and cheer up the Bryan twins. “You guys think you are going to win every match you play?” a jovial Jackson told the Bryans as one must of wondered whether Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O’Neal received the same speech after losing an NBA game. Jackson’s words could not take the sting out of the loss for the Bryans, who for the first time tasted Davis Cup defeat in front of their father and numerous friends and family from Southern California

“We’ve had a lot of disappointing losses, but this ranks pretty high,” said Mike Bryan. “It hurts.”

McEnroe’s posture still exuded confidence. After all, the United States was still favored to win the final two singles matches – Roddick against Ljubicic in the fourth rubber and Agassi against Ancic in the fifth rubber. Roddick held a 5-1 career record with Ljubicic, having won the last five meetings, while Agassi’s experience and aura would make him the clear favorite against the 20-year-old Ancic, who had lost to Agassi in their only previous meeting.

“If there are two guys you want to roll out down 2-1, we’ve got the two guys we want,” said McEnroe. “I’m extremely confident that they’re both going to play well. Andre’s been in this position before and Andy’s been in a position where he’s had to win a match. These are the two guys we want to bring out. This is our best team. It’s our one-two punch. We’re playing at home. They’re going to have to play with a little more pressure on them now. Up until now, I think they’ve been able to sort of swing away and been the underdogs and go for their shots. If they can do that, if Ljubicic can do that against Agassi, the Bryans and Roddick, than that’s too good. But we’ll see if he can.”

Roddick and Ljubicic would battle in the fourth rubber of the tie – Ljubicic, like in 2003, trying to shut the door on the Americans – while Roddick trying to stave off elimination, a position he had been in on two other occasions without success – against France in 2002 and Spain in 2004.

After splitting the first two sets, the epic – and pivotal – third-set tie-break ensued with neither Roddick or Ljubicic willing to give the other the two-sets-to-one lead. Roddick jumped to a 4-1 lead and held three set points throughout the 24 point tie-break – tying the longest tie-break in U.S. Davis Cup history. However, Roddick’s inside-out cross court forehand at 11-12 landed wide giving Ljubicic the fourth set. The two players would again go toe-to-toe in a tie-break in the fourth set, with Ljubicic fighting off four set points before double faulting at 7-8 on the fifth-set point to give Roddick the set and square the match at two-sets apiece. The momentum appeared to be with Roddick, but he was not able to capitalize. Ljubicic ran off with the first eight points of the fifth set, breaking Roddick at love in the first game of the fifth set and cashing in on an insurance break in the fifth game of the final set. Three game later, Ljubicic closed out the crushing 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (11), 6-7 (7), 6-2 victory in three hours and 57 minutes.

Roddick and McEnroe slumped on their courtside seating while Ljubicic, Ancic, Pilic and the rest of the Croatian delegation danced and sang on the court with handfuls of Croatian fans in the audience waving flags and rejoicing in the historic first round upset. It marked the first time in 105 years of Davis Cup that the United States was eliminated in the first round on home soil.

Ljubicic would become one of only two players to win three live rubbers against a U.S. Davis Cup team on two occasions – joining Mexico’s Raul Ramirez who turned the trick against the United States in the 1975 and 1976 Davis Cup campaigns.

In all, Ljubicic labored for a total of eight hours and 44 minutes over 12 sets over the weekend. His career record against the United States in Davis Cup play now stood at 6-0 – with only Laurie Doherty of Great Britain holding a better record against the U.S. with a 10-0 record in matches against the U.S. in 1902, 1903, 1905 and 1906.

“I have no words, really,” said Ljubicic. “To beat Andre, the Bryans and Roddick in three days….it is amazing.”

Roddick was crushed, irritable, devastatingly angry and disappointed. He slumped in front of the microphone in the interview room and was asked to share how he was feeling.

“Probably not in words you would understand,” he slurred. “It’s tough to describe. Really, really bad….There’s no worse feeling than losing a match in Davis Cup in our sport, especially when your teammates are counting on you.”

“It hurts a lot,” said McEnroe, who spoke with the press after coaching Bob Bryan to a three-set win over Roko Karanusic in the dead-fifth rubber that made the final verdict a 3-2 win for Croatia. “After getting to the final last year, starting off at home with our best team, it’s disappointing.”

Davis Cup in Croatia revisited – Roddick out, Fish in

What happened the last time the U.S. Davis Cup team traveled to Croatia? Ironically, Andy Roddick was not in the U.S. line-up due to exhaustion and injury following a marathon match at a Grand Slam tournament – as is the case this week following his 16-14 fifth-set loss to Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final on Sunday. Back in 2003, it was a wrist injury that placed Roddick off the U.S. team following his 21-19 in the fifth set win over Younes El Aynaoui in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open and, like this week in Pec, Croatia, he was replaced in the singles line-up by Mardy Fish. The following is a summary of the last U.S. visit to Croatia back in February of 2003

The pending retirements in 2003 of Pete Sampras and Michael Chang, and the retirement of Jim Courier three years prior caused the U.S. Davis Cup focus to center more squarely on “Generation Next.” With a 33-year-old Andre Agassi still playing, but in retirement from Davis Cup play, and 33-year-old Todd Martin playing what turned out to be his final Davis Cup match at Roland Garros the previous fall, the changing of the guard was to be completed with an away match in the first round of the 2003 competition against Croatia in Zagreb.

However, Captain Patrick McEnroe’s hopes of his Andy Roddick-led youthful charge in 2003 suffered a lethal blow just 10 days before the start of the Croatia tie as Roddick’s exhausting Australian Open campaign had instigated a case of severe tendonitis in his right wrist, preventing his nomination to the team. Roddick’s 4-6, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-4, 21-19 quarterfinal win over Younes El Aynaoui of Morrocco in four hours and 59 minutes contributed greatly to Roddick’s condition as did a diving attempt at a volley near the end of the match.

“I didn’t think anything about it then, and the wrist wasn’t really sore after the match,” Roddick told Bill Dwyre with the Los Angeles Times of landing on his right wrist after the diving volley attempt. “I packed up, went off, did my press, and then, when I went to leave, I picked up my big tennis bag and felt this huge pain in my wrist.”

Roddick considered defaulting the Aussie semifinal match to Rainer Schuettler of Germany, but since it was his first sojourn into a Grand Slam semifinal gave it a run. The later the match went, the more the pain affected his play in his 7-5, 2-6, 6-3, 6-3 loss to Schuettler.

“At the end, it hurt so much to hit my two-handed backhand that I was, pretty much, just releasing my right hand and hitting a left-handed forehand.”
Roddick saw Dr. Norm Zemel of the Los Angeles-based Kerlan-Jobe group, who diagnosed three weeks of rest. “The doctor said it was the most severe case of tendonitis he had ever seen,” Roddick told Dwyre. “I really didn’t know what it was, how bad it was, until I saw the doctor yesterday.”

Without its No. 1 player, U.S. Captain Patrick McEnroe would have to rely on James Blake, Mardy Fish, Taylor Dent and Robby Ginepri to carry load in lieu of Roddick. All four players had been knocking at the door and waiting to burst through and make a mark on their own and follow in Roddick’s lead through to the upper echelon of world tennis. Croatia would be their opportunity to take the stage and shine.

“I’ve said from the time I became captain, it’s time for the younger guys to step up and they have and now it’s time for them to take over,” said McEnroe. “I’m excited about watching the young guns take the responsibility into their hands fully for our Davis Cup quest to bring the Davis Cup back to the U.S… It’s time for them to enjoy this challenge, to take the responsibility of being our team and get us through this match.”

Much of the responsibility would fall on Blake, who would be designated as the No. 1 player for the U.S. with an ATP ranking of No. 24. The 23-year-old – the oldest player in the green American team -  had previously only played supporting roles in Davis Cup play, playing singles behind Roddick in two previous ties – against India in Winston-Salem in 2001 and against France at Roland Garros the previous fall – while also playing doubles only in two other ties.

“It’s a little weird since I definitely feel like I’m still the one learning,” confided Blake. “Just last year, I was the brand new kid and the rookie on the team and now I’m considered the veteran. I’m the oldest member of the team. It’s going to seem a little strange.”

Blake would also be thrown into the spotlight as the draw for the U.S. vs. Croatia tie would be held on February 6 – the 10 year anniversary of the death of Arthur Ashe. The USTA would honor the legacy of Ashe by sewing the embroidery of his name on the left sleeve of the official team uniform for each U.S. team member. Said USTA Chief Executive Arlen Kantarian “The Davis Cup represents one of Arthur’s greatest ideals, to bring people together around the world through sports. On this tenth anniversary of his death, we remember an outstanding player, captain and humanitarian – and inspiration not just for his team, but to our country and the world.”

“I think being African-American, I owe him a great debt of gratitude for being able to deal with the pressures and situations. What I go through now and what anyone goes though is much easier thanks to what he did. It took a great man and great athlete like him to do that and we are so fortunate today to have had him as that role model.”

Ashe’s legacy and reputation to assist in humanitarian causes had clearly rubbed off on Jim Courier, who continued in his role as coach under McEnroe in Zagreb. Courier had been made aware of the significant land-mine problems in Croatia that remained following its war for independence in the early 1990s from Jim Lawrence, the U.S. State Department’s Director of Mine Action Initiatives and Partnerships.

Courier had arranged for the team to visit a de-mining operation on the morning of Tuesday, February 4, but snow and high winds delayed the helicopter ride that would take the team to a coastal region near the city of Zadar, where a major de-mining operation would take place.  In place of the team, the United States Tennis Association sent a group of its officials in their place. USTA Davis Cup Committee Chairmen Warren Kimball and Allen Kiel were so moved by the struggles for the Croatian people to rid their soil of such deadly land mines, that they encouraged and received the financial commitment from USTA President Alan Schwartz, to donate $25,000 to de-mining efforts in Croatia. The U.S. Embassy in Zagreb pledged a matching $25,000 grant. The money was used to clear a mine-field in the village of Mekusje, 30 miles west of Zagreb, where the mine field prevented townspeople from access the town’s local tennis court.

“This is our way of showing support to the people of Croatia, who have been such incredible hosts to our Davis Cup team and USTA contingent this week,” said Schwartz. “It is reassuring to know that the contribution by the USTA and the U.S. government will help the people of Mekusje enjoy the wonderful sport of tennis once again.”

Much of the buzz entering the first round series centered around the status of 2001 Wimbledon champion and Croatian sporting god Goran Ivanisevic. Since his celebrated win at the All England Club in 2001, Ivanisevic had been plagued with injuries and underwent surgery on his left shoulder in May of 2002. Despite not playing only three ATP singles matches in the last year due to the recovery from his surgery, Ivanisevic was determined to make his return against the Americans. He had played in the Heilbronn Challenger level event in Germany the week before Davis Cup, only to withdraw in the second round with tremendous pain in his shoulder.
“I couldn’t do anything, my arm hurt terribly,” Ivanisevic said. “I suffered for 10 months, underwent an operation to feel better and now this…I’ve never felt so miserable….I’ll let him give me 30 injections if that’d help. I’m in such a state that I’d go to Tibet on foot if I knew that would help,” he said. “I’m totally lost.”

Not surprisingly, he was not drawn to play singles against the Americans, but in doubles with Ljubicic. Fish, ranked No. 74 in the ATP rankings, was drawn to face No. 52-ranked Ljubicic to start the tie off, with Blake and Mario Ancic playing the second singles match.

Under a backdrop of a loud, flag-waving jam-packed crowd of 2,800 in the tiny Dom Hall Sportova, which resembled a high school gym than a major sporting arena, Fish and Ljubicic opened the proceedings. Ljubicic, with his future brother-in-law banging a drum to incite the small but overflowing and vocal crowd, took advantage of the fast conditions on the indoor carpet serving with equal abandon on both first and second serve. With Fish showing nerves in his first away Davis Cup action and his first ever Davis Cup singles match, he was tentative on his normally solid return of serve and was unable to hook onto Ljubicic’s blistering serves. Only after 97 minutes – at 1-2 in the third set – was Fish able to look at a break point – only to see it disappear behind a Ljubicic service winner. Of Ljubicic’s 70 service points, 30 were aces, 19 were service winners, while 16 were double faults. Final result, Ljubicic in straight sets by a 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 margin.

“I’ve never played anybody with a serve like that,” said Fish of Ljubicic. “I couldn’t read his serve and I just didn’t have an answer…I’ve never seen a first and second serve like that.”

Blake took the court with the swagger of the team leader and jumped on and dominated Ancic, easily winning the first two sets 6-1, 6-2 before maneuvering through a third set-tie-break to square the matches at 1-1 after the first day of play.

“Davis Cup is a lot of pressure and I think it’s a lot of fun out there,” said Blake. “It’s a great atmosphere out there having a biased crowd. There is going to be pressure in every match, with varying degrees. I went into it looking it as if it was another live Davis Cup rubber.”

While there was little doubt that Fish and Blake would pair in the doubles, there still remained a minor mystery on whether Ivanisevic would take the court the next day.  Said Croatian captain Niki Pilic of Goran’s availability for the Saturday doubles, “I think he will make his decision. I have made my decision already. If he has a good arm, like today (in practice), I think he will play.”

An electric atmosphere greeted Ivanisevic as he strolled onto the court with Ljubicic on Saturday afternoon. The scene, according to Bud Collins of the Boston Globe was of pandemonium. “Horns toot, a drum rat-a-tat-tats, shrill whistles pierce the fetid air, and the checker board flags of Croatia flap everywhere.”

Ivanisevic was playing in only his second complete match since undergoing left shoulder surgery on May 15, 2002. Ivanisevic retired with shoulder pain in the second round of last week’s Heilbronn Challenger in Germany, his first event since April 6, 2002, when he and Ljubicic defeated Guillermo Canas and Lucas Arnold of Argentina in the Davis Cup quarterfinal in Buenos Aires.

The rust showed early for Ivanisevic who struggled with his serves and stumbled on volleys and returns, trying desperately to find his rhythm against the energized Blake and Fish.  Leading two-sets-to-love, Blake and Fish appeared in complete control, until the third set tie-break. With the Croatians leading 4-2 in the tie-break, Fish served up a double fault to put the set on the Croatians racquet with Ljubicic serving at 5-2, but Blake and Fish won both points on Ljubicic’s serve, to cut the lead to 4-5. Blake then served to Ivanisevic, who floated a sitter return, that Fish netted on top of the net, giving Croatia two set points. A bungled volley by Blake then gave Croatia the third set tiebreak. “It was a screwy tiebreaker,” Blake said later.” Hard to believe – on a fast court, and strong servers. But I thought we were OK.” A loose service game by Fish in the first game of the fourth set, cemented the momentum change for the Croatians. At 4-4 in the fifth-set, the Croatians broke Blake at love for a 5-4 lead, with Ljubicic then serving out the incredible 3-6, 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4, 6-4 victory for the vital 2-1 lead.

Wrote Collins of Ivanisevic as the match concluded, “He was beaming ecstatically after hugging Ljubicic at the conclusion of their enthralling 3-hour-4-minute rebound. They leaped, danced, and pitched their rackets into the joyful crowd. Ivanisevic grabbed a microphone to thank the crowd and lead them in a victory song. The essence of the lyrics: “We stomped the Americans!”

Said Ivanisevic, “I knew it was going to be tough because 11 months, I played (one) challenger, but not a match like this. This is Davis Cup. It was really the first time in my life (I was) lost, that you don’t know what you are doing on the court. Nervous, heavy, no ideas. Then (Ivan) was telling me, come on, don’t worry it’s going to come, we need one break, we need something to happen. By the end of the second set, I start to play better and felt it that we were going to be OK. Blake played very good and also Fish, but Blake was the guy who was really pushing. Third, fourth and fifth set, everything open…I had great pain in my elbow, biceps, everywhere, but I said, doesn’t matter what happen, you have to finish this match….

“I was taking painkillers and I said to Ivan, ‘We are going to break Blake in the fifth set’, because he is playing too good, he has to do something wrong, Yesterday, he didn’t do anything wrong and today almost three hours, he didn’t do anything wrong and nobody can do it. And then we had good returns in the last game and it was great….I needed this match. Wimbledon was different. I forgot how to play this kind of match. I was so happy I didn’t what to do, where to go, where to jump. I really need this match. I need to feel, because when you play Challenger and you win a match and nobody is jumping, but when you beat the USA in doubles from two sets to love down and after 11 months without this type of match, you have to be happy. … I knew I play good at the practice. I was very nervous today. Very stiff, very lost, but I knew it would break somewhere and I did it. I started to play well later….volley, return everything was great. Crowd was great…this is crowd this is what you say, when you have home advantage when we have crowd like this and crowd can lift you. Without this crowd, we couldn’t win today….I was so stiff, so tight, so much pressure. I started to feel my serve at the end of the second set. I served the best in the fifth set when I had the most pain. I wouldn’t stop for anything. Even with a broken shoulder I would play, but I think it’s going to fine. Now I can take off for the next five months.”

The match marked the first time since 1965 that an American doubles team has lost in Davis Cup after leading two sets to love. In 1965, Dennis Ralston and Clark Graebner lead Spain’s Luis Arilla and Manuel Santana two sets to love, only to lose 4-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 11-9 in Barcelona.

Said Blake, “They served great. They kept their heads high. They stayed positive. Goran, I think, got better as the match progressed. He served better than you can expect from someone coming off an eight-month layoff.”

Blake chose his post-match press conference to also vent at some of the Croatian fans in the crowd, who called out during points, in between first and second serves, during serves, during overheads.  “I feel like I was a little disappointed with the lack of class of some of the fans, but some of them might not be tennis fans, so that is possibly to be expected,” said Blake. “It didn’t really have a place in a match that was supposed to about goodwill and friendship between countries. I feel like I was more disappointed with the referee’s decision not to do anything about it and not control the situation when that’s there job and that’s the rule. I don’t think that affected us that much besides one incident of calling out in the middle of a point, which obviously affected concentration during that point. We tried to put that behind us.”

Instead Blake chose to look ahead to the fourth rubber of the series between he and Ljubicic and hopefully a live fifth rubber between Fish and Ancic. “I still see a good chance for me,” said Blake, “and I’d love to give Mardy the chance to be the hero”

On Sunday, Blake withstood the Ljubicic barrage of aces and after losing the first set, stole the second set tie-break and took a 4-2 lead in the third and appeared in complete control of the match. But Ljubicic went on a run of four straight games to win the third set, benefiting from two loose service games from Blake in the eighth and tenth games of the fourth set. Ljubicic carried his momentum to win in four sets-  6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-3 -  to clinch the tie for Croatia.
“I thought James was in control, ready to win the third set,” said McEnroe. “Maybe we both relaxed too much. Those were loose games that you can’t play against a guy serving and competing like Ljubicic. You cannot allow yourself to relax for a second. Maybe we both relaxed. Maybe I have look at myself and what I did there. Certainly, James played a loose game and you can’t afford to do that in a match like this, whether it is the Davis Cup pressure or how well Ivan was playing, because he was certainly playing well and doing things that took James out of his rhythm but that was his game plan…My job is to keep my player as a tune to what is happening without making him nervous. Maybe I could have done a better job at that.”

Ljubicic would end the match with 29 aces and 19 service winners in 97 service points. For the weekend, Ljubicic would amass 72 aces, would hold serve 50 of 51 times and only face nine break points during his three matches in joining a elite company of only eight other players to win three live matches against a U.S. Davis Cup team, joining Laurie Doherty of Great Britain (1903), Henri Cochet of France (1928), Frank Sedgman of Australia (1951), Neale Fraser of Australia (1959), Nicola Pietrangeli of Italy (1961), Raul Ramirez of Mexico (1975 and 1976) and Roger Federer of Switzerland (2001).

Blake described the matches as the most emotional match he’s ever played, but put a optimistic spin on the first round loss.

We are going to get a Davis Cup in the next four or five years with Andy, myself, Mardy, Taylor, Robby,” said Blake. “I don’t really make guarantees, because I think it’s kind of silly, but I’m confident that we are going get a Davis Cup in the next couple of years. We’re already extremely strong. We all care about Davis Cup a lot, that’s why this hurts so bad. Together, we are so emotionally high and low after a weekend or an entire week together, I don’t see how other teams can be as excited about Davis Cup as we are, that’s why I feel confident in the fact that we are going to do this together and we are going to come through one of these times.”

McEnroe was obviously disappointed in the loss, which gave him the distinction of being the only U.S. Davis Cup Captain to lose two first round matches during his tenure, but again looked at the long term potential of the team.

“I think that down the road we are going to be a damn good team,” he said. “How far that road is…I certainly thought that we could do it this year and now we are out…

“These guys care a lot. One of the reasons that I’m not dispirited is because of these kids. They care and they are passionate about it. At the end of the day, that’s what it is all about. At the end of the day, that’s what it is all about. Obviously, it’s about winning and losing and I’m disappointed to lose again in the first round. It hurts. This one hurts more than any other one, because I felt like we could go all the way this year, but there is a thin line between doing that and losing in the first round.

“This is a tough atmosphere. These guys have to get burned. There’s no other way around it. Pete Sampras is the greatest player of all time and he went through it. It’s tough to go through it. These guys love it. Taylor Dent said to me in the middle of the match today, when he was playing out there. “You know what? We lost and all, but it’s been such a great week.” That makes me feel that it is worthwhile and that these guys really do care and that if they continue to improve that we will have success down the road.”

Switzerland (and Federer) Set For Another Davis Cup Showdown With The USA

The U.S. Davis Cup team drew a tough first round match at home against Switzerland – and presumably five-time Wimbledon and U.S. champion Roger Federer – in the 2009 Davis Cup competition. The first round tie will be held March 6-8, 2009 at a site chosen by the United States Tennis Association. The last time the two nations met in Davis Cup play, Federer orchestrated one of the greatest single performances ever achieved by a player against a U.S. Davis Cup team, accounting for all three points in the 3-2 first round upset of the United States in 2001 in Basel, Switzerland. In review of this historic effort from Federer, the following is an excerpt from my upcoming book due out November 1 ON THIS DAY IN TENNIS HISTORY on that series as well as an excerpt from Rene Stauffer’s book THE ROGER FEDERER STORY, QUEST FOR PERFECTION which discusses the month of Feburary, 2001 – one of the most important in Federer’s career.

February 9, 2001 – Patrick McEnroe makes his debut as U.S. Davis Cup captain and his top player Jan-Michael Gambill wins his first “live” Davis Cup rubber in defeating Michel Kratochvil 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 as the United States and Switzerland split the opening two matches in the first day of play in the 2001 Davis Cup first round in Basel, Switzerland. Todd Martin is defeated by Swiss No. 1 Roger Federer 6-4, 7-6, 4-6, 6-1 in the opening rubber of the tie.

February 10, 2001 – Justin Gimelstob earns a dubious Davis Cup distinction when he and Jan-Michael Gambill are defeated by Switzerland’s Roger Federer and Lorenzo Manta 6-4, 6-2, 7-5 as the United States goes down 2-1 to the Swiss after the second day of play in the Davis Cup first round in Basel, Switzerland. The loss, which ultimately becomes his Davis Cup finale, drops Gimelstob’s Davis Cup record to 0-3, tying him with Robert Wrenn and Melville Long for the worst-ever record for a U.S. Davis Cup player. Wrenn loses two singles and a doubles match in the 1903 Davis Cup Challenge Round against Britain for his 0-3 record, while Long turns the same trick in the 1909 Davis Cup Challenge Round against Australasia. Gimelstob also loses in doubles with Todd Martin in the 1998 Davis Cup semifinal against Italy and, also in that tie, loses a dead-rubber singles match to Gianluca Pozzi.

February 11, 2001 – Roger Federer clinches a near single-handed victory for Switzerland over the United States in the first round of Davis Cup, defeating Jan-Michael Gambill 7-5, 6-2, 4-6, 6-2 in the 3-2 win in Federer’s hometown of Basel. Federer, who beat Todd Martin in the opening singles and paired with Lorenzo Manta to beat Gambill and Justin Gimelstob in the doubles rubber, becomes one of seven players to win three live matches against a U.S. Davis Cup team, joining Laurie Doherty of Britain, Henri Cochet of France, Frank Sedgman and Neale Fraser of Australia, Nicola Pietrangeli of Italy and Raul Ramirez of Mexico. Says Federer, the future world No. 1, “My total game was good the whole weekend. I can’t complain. I was serving well, feeling well from the baseline. … Usually when I get tired I let go a little bit mentally, but that was absolutely not the case. It was just total relief, total happiness at one time. I was so happy for the team, happy for Switzerland — to beat such a big country.” Eighteen-year-old Andy Roddick, another future world No. 1, makes his Davis Cup debut in the dead-rubber fifth-match and becomes the eighth-youngest American to play a Davis Cup match in defeating George Bastl 6-3, 6-4. Incidentally on the same day back in the United States, Venus and Serena Williams as well as Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras appear on the celebrated American television show “The Simpsons.”

Stauffer also documents Federer’s first ever ATP tournament victory in Milan, Italy the week before playing the United States in the tail end of his chapter “No Pain, No Gain.”

At the start of the season, Federer and Martina Hingis won the Hopman Cup in Perth. It was not an especially significant event but it was, after all, the International Tennis Federation’s sanctioned world mixed tennis tour­nament. He reached the third round of the Australian Open-avenging his Olympic loss to DiPasquale in the first round before losing to eventual finalist Arnaud Clement. February, however, became the best month of his career to date. At the indoor event in Milan, Italy after the Australian Open, Federer defeated Olympic Champion Yevgeny Kafelnikov for the first time in his ca­reer in the semifinals to reach his third career ATP singles final. Federer seized the opportunity and, with his parents in the stands cheering him on, he finally won his first ATP singles title, defeating No. 53-ranked Julien Boutter of France 6-4, 6-7 (7), 6-4.

Lundgren was correct. A milestone was achieved. “The relief is enormous,” Federer said. “I’ve had to wait a long time for this moment. It should get easier from here on out.” But the excursion to Milan didn’t end very happily for Roger’s father. In his excitement, he locked his car keys inside the car and had to smash in the car window to retrieve them.

A week later, another career milestone was achieved for the 19-year-old as he returned to Basel for Davis Cup duty against the United States. There was no stopping Federer. He beat Todd Martin and Jan-Michael Gambill in two breath-taking performances in singles, and in between, paired with Lorenzo Manta to defeat the American team of Gambill and Justin Gimelstob in dou­bles. With his three match victories in the 3-2 Swiss defeat of the USA, he joined Raul Ramirez, Neale Fraser, Nicola Pietrangeli, Frank Sedgman, Henri Cochet and Laurie Doherty as the seventh and the youngest player to win three live matches in a Davis Cup tie against the United States. “It’s like a dream,” said Federer, who shed tears of joy after his match-clinching victory over Gambill.

The Americans, by contrast, were stunned. “You’d have to be blind not to see that he’s got a great future in store for him,” said Gambill. U.S. Captain Patrick McEnroe didn’t try to make any excuses although he was missing his two strongest players, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, in this match. “We knew that Federer would be tough but we didn’t expect this,” he said. “Whenever he got hold of the ball, the point was his.”

February would bring even more success for Federer. The week after his single-handed defeat of the U.S. Davis Cup team, he reached the semifinals in Marseille where his 10-match winning streak was ended by Kafelnikov. The next week, he reached his fourth career singles final, losing to Nicolas Escude of France in a third-set tie-break in the final of Rotterdam. The ATP chose him their “Player of the Month” and effusively praised in their official press communication, “The Federer Express has arrived!” A playful warning was also issued in the press release stating that Federer, “has been blessed with so much talent that it almost seems unfair to his opponents.”