Ancic nerve holds to win Davis Cup for Croatia

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The Independent Online

To the name Goran Ivanisevic can be added that of Mario Ancic, two Split personalities now spoken of in the same breath as heroic figures in the brief sporting history of Croatia.

Known as "Baby Goran", the 21-year-old Ancic secured the Davis Cup for his country last night by winning the deciding fifth rubber of the final against Slovakia in Bratislava.

Having lost every other live singles match he had contested in his nation's campaign this year, the big-serving Ancic held his nerve to defeat Michal Mertinak, a Slovakian substitute, 7-6, 6-3, 6-4. The first man to smother Ancic with congratulations was his relieved team-mate, Croatian No 1 Ivan Ljubicic, who had earlier left the outcome in the balance by losing to his opposite number, Dominik Hrbaty. His 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 win levelled the tie. Ljubicic, who had won Saturday's doubles in partnership with Ancic, said he woke up yesterday with a stiff neck and was physically sick after leaving the court during the match against Hrbaty.

Considering how much he has given to Croatia's cause, it would have been cruel if the trophy had been snatched from Ljubicic's grasp. Not that Slovakia deserved victory any less, having fought so hard to compensate for the loss of Karol Beck with a knee injury just before the start of the tie on Friday. To add to Slovakian disquiet, a rumour circulated that Beck had failed a drug test. This was strongly denied. The veteran Karol Kucera, called in to replace Beck, lost to Ljubicic in straight sets. Yesterday it was the turn of Mertinak, ranked 165th in the world, to play his first singles rubber against world No 22 Ancic, being preferred by Slovakia captain Miloslav Mecir.

Although this appeared to be a mismatch, Ancic's ominous Davis Cup singles record worried Croatia's supporters, and these were not eased as the opening set developed. Ancic was unable to convert any of four break points and had to save one. However, when it came to the tie-break, Ancic dropped only one point.

Ancic won the first three games of the second set before his opponent had recovered from the shock of the shoot-out, and the Croatian bench, including Ivanisevic, the 2001 Wimbledon champion, took comfort from the fact that their man had only ever lost to Andre Agassi from two sets up.

Mertinak, broken in the opening game of the third set, fought back to level at 3-3 and hold for 4-3. Ancic shrugged and lost only two more points, winning on his second match point after two hours and 50 minutes.

"It was tough, tough to sit down and go through all these matches," Ivanisevic said. "It's easier to play, you get out all the emotions. Wimbledon I won by myself, this is different. But this comes after Wimbledon. "

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