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Croatia takes Davis Cup

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As much as the Davis Cup is the largest (134 countries) annual international team competition, it is also probably the world's longest sporting marathon.
Nine months to the day after they began their quest in Carson, Calif., against an American team featuring Andy Roddick and Andre Agassi, Croatia won the 2005 Davis Cup yesterday when Mario Ancic defeated Slovak substitute Michal Mertinak 7-6 (1), 6-3, 6-4 in the fifth and deciding match of the final at Bratislava...
Monday, December 5, 2005 At the conclusion of a season plagued by injuries and withdrawals in the men's and women's games, it was appropriate that once more it was the on-court product that saved the day.
While the visiting Croatians were strong favourites playing on a medium-paced indoor surface, it took a fifth match to end a weekend full of intrigue.Cr
Most of it centred on the No. 2 Slovak, Karol Beck, a last-minute pullout in the opening singles on Friday. His substitute, veteran Karol Kucera, was beaten decisively by Croatian No. 1 Ivan Ljubicic before Slovak leader Dominik Hrbaty knotted matters 1-1 by defeating Ancic in four sets.
Beck also withdrew from Saturday's doubles, a match Ljubicic and Ancic won 7-6 (5), 6-3, 7-6 (5) over Hrbaty and Mertinak.
Supposedly, Beck had a knee injury, but speculation was rampant that he had tested positive for a banned substance after Slovakia's semi-final win over Argentina in September.
Croatian captain Niki Pilic was quoted as saying he had heard it was for marijuana.
By International Tennis Federation protocol, players testing positive are not named until a tribunal hearing is held. Any matches Beck had played and won would have been voided if he was later sanctioned for a positive test.
The storybook ending for the Croatians was for Ljubicic to cap off a perfect Davis Cup year by winning the fourth match against Hrbaty yesterday. The world No. 9 was undefeated in 2005 (seven wins in singles and four in doubles) and hoped to equal John McEnroe's 12-0 record from 1982, the only time that has been done since the advent of the 16-country World Group format in 1981.
Though he failed, losing to Hrbaty 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4, Ljubicic actually did better than McEnroe because three of the American's wins came in matches after the best-of-five match ties (series) were decided, "dead rubbers" in Davis Cup parlance. All of Ljubicic's 11 wins were in "live rubbers."
In a year when injuries have been so prominent, it was apt that a health-issue figured in what was the final day of a long season. "I had a really stiff neck when I woke up this morning," Ljubicic said yesterday. "It was a really hard decision [to play]. I wasn't fit and I thought about giving a chance to [teammate] Ivo Karlovic. But in the end, I was thinking I deserved a chance to play. I almost made it."
Ljubicic hit his first serve extremely well but, said he had trouble with returning serve, shots on the run and second serves, because he couldn't toss the ball high enough because of his neck.
Ancic, ranked No. 22, had not won a 2005 live rubber in singles for Croatia, but in the fifth match, he was too much for Mertinak, a 26-year-old journeyman ranked No. 129.
Croatia, only 14 years independent from Yugoslavia, is the 12th country to win the Davis Cup in its 105-year history.
Pilic became the first to captain two countries to victory. In 1988, 1989 and 1993, the native of Croatia led Germany to titles.
National hero and 2001 Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic did not play, but was on the four-man team and will have his name engraved on the trophy.
The culmination, barely two months from the start of 2006 competition on Feb. 10, of this year's event featured impassioned support for both sides inside the 4,100-seat Sibamac Arena.

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