They didn’t know it was impossible, so they did it : in 2005, the Croatian Ivan Ljubicic and Mario Ancic achieved the feat of winning the BNP Paribas Davis Cup all by themselves, without needing the help of their teammates Karlovic and Krajan for instance, who we’ll see again on the court and on the bench, respectively, next weekend. Let’s look back on the duo’s journey, from knocking out the American “Dream Team” in the first round, to an improbable 5th decisive match to win the title in the final.
Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick in the singles, Bob and Mike Bryan in the doubles : the American line-up in the first round of the 2005 BNP Paribas Davis Cup looked pretty decent, playing on home soil, in Carson, California, on a hard court. However, Andre Agassi and his crew ended up being completely overshadowed by an over-active visitor : Ivan Ljubicic, the shining leader of a Croatian team who was still playing to stay up in the World Group less than six months earlier. The tall bald with a smashing serve only took three sets to ruin Agassi’s party in the first match (6/3 7/6 6/3), before dominating the Bryan brothers in the double, with his partner, Mario Ancic (3/6 7/6 6/4 6/4). Andy Roddick’s resistance couldn’t change anything : at the end of the five sets, an overexcited Ljubicic earned Croatia’s qualification for the quarter finals in the fourth match (4/6 6/3 7/6 6/7 6/2). Never, in the BNP Paribas Davis Cup’s 105 years of existence, had the American lost in the first round on their home soil !
« Agassi, Roddick and the Bryan in three days : it was one of the craziest weekends of my career », remembers the oldest of the two Croatians, remembering the start of this unbelievable adventure : “It all started when, with Mario, we won the bronze medal in the doubles at the Athens Olympic Games the previous year, ending on a tight 16-14 against two specialists, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi. This made us realize what we were capable of. After that, we won the Davis Cup play-off against Belgium by ourselves, and from then on, we realized that we both wanted to play all the matches of the following edition. When you have that conviction in mind, with the right state of mind which goes with it, it makes things easier. Mario and I were ready, totally convinced of being capable to draw on our reserves for four weekends over the year.”
Ancic – Ljubicic, stronger than Ivanisevic
The journey was launched : in the quarter finals, in Split, on an indoor carpet court, Andrei Pavel and Victor Hanescu’s Romania also bore the consequences of that strategy, Ljubicic scoring two points in the singles, and another one in the doubles alongside Ancic. Just like “Ivan the Terrible” and “Super Mario” had predicted, no other Croatian player would go on to play a high-stake match during that year : in the semi-finals against Russia, Ljubicic, again, scored two points in the singles against Mikhaïl Youzhny and Nikolay Davyndenko, while the Ancic-Ljubicic tandem win the doubles against Igor Andreev and Dmitry Tursunov. Croatia qualified for the Davis Cup final, something that even Yugoslavia hadn’t managed to do despite the presence in its team of an immense champion, Goran Ivanisevic.
Speaking, of Ivanisevic, he was the figure which a whole generation of Croatian tennis players were looking up to, as they had grown up watching his incredible feats. So, for the final, played against a surprising Slovakian team which had knocked out the Argentine favorites in the semi-finals, all the group decided to recall the glorious retired champion (“Aceman” had retired a year and a half earlier) as a sparring-partner, for him to be credited in case they triumphed in Bratislava.
Ljubicic, one set away…
The final against Slovakia started with the same exact scenario as in the three previous rounds : Ivan Ljubicic won his first singles match against the Slovakian n°2, the aging Karol Kucera (6/3 6/4 6/3), Mario Ancic lost his against the n°1 (7/6 6/3 6/7 6/4 against Dominik Hrbaty), and the Croatian tandem took the advantage in the doubles (7/6 6/3 7/6 against Hrbaty and Michal Mertinak).
Ljubicic then had a chance of ending the most incredible individual journey ever seen in the BNP Paribas Davis Cup, with an absolute faultless track record : winning all of the 12 points in high-stake matches, 8 in the singles, 4 in the doubles, to go on and win the competition. However, against all odds, the leader tripped on the last step to glory, defeated by Hrbaty in five sets (4/6 6/3 6/4 3/6 6/4). With a good excuse…”I woke up that morning with a really stiff neck, explained the Croatian. Despite taking pain-killers, I even had to leave the court during the third set to go vomit, as I was feeling so bad ! And I have to admit that I was feeling tension. The stakes were so high that it was difficult to keep the concentration which was needed. It couldn’t work against an opponent like Hrbaty, who, that day, played his best match against me.”
Nikki, Zeljko, Ivo and the rest…
In this unexpected match between two beginners in a final, the title had to be played in the fifth match, between the one who was waiting to make his contribution in the singles, Mario Ancic, and a complete unknown, Michal Mertinak, world number 165. The match was tighter than predicted, Ancic looking tensed, but the young Croatian hope had revised his lessons all year : a decisive game won in the first set, a break in each set after that, and he won in three sets (7/6 6/3 6/4). “I had the feeling that everything was under my control, says Ancic. It was an unforgettable match…and an unforgettable day.”
Croatia won its first BNP Paribas Davis Cup thanks to a duo which has won every single point, and became the first nation to triumph in the competition without featuring among the top-seeds. On the bench, Nikki Pulic could exult : he became the first captain to win the trophy with two different nations, after triumphing with Germany in 1988, 1989 and 1993. “But there’s no possible comparison with what I have lived before, he smiled. Today, I won with my country, my people. I’m so proud of having lead this team to victory in one of sport’s biggest competitions in the world.” And Ljubicic, to conclude : “Andre Agassi, this great man, came to congratulate us for what we had achieved against his team. There are moments like these which you never forget”.