Ivan Ljubicic set a Davis Cup record yesterday in winning the opening singles rubber of this year's final for Croatia. But the hosts, Slovakia, weathering a personnel crisis over the late withdrawal of Karol Beck, regained some momentum when Dominik Hrbaty took a two-sets early-evening lead in the second rubber against Mario Ancic.
By beating Karol Kucera, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3, Ljubicic became the first man to win 10 consecutive live rubbers in a Davis Cup year since World Group play began in 1981. Two more wins for him this weekend will match John McEnroe's 12 winning rubbers from 12 in America's successful campaign of 1982. Three of McEnroe's wins were in dead singles.
Kucera was called up to face Ljubicic less than three hours before the start of play after Beck was ruled out with a knee injury. Beck has not played a competitive match for a month. He has also had to cope with unconfirmed reports that he failed a drugs test during Slovakia's semi-final win over Argentina.
Beck strenuously denied on Thursday that he had failed a test, and the International Tennis Federation said it had no comment to make. But on the eve of the final, Slovakia's captain, Miloslav Mecir, said the issue had disturbed his team's preparations.
"Definitely it brings an element of discomfort to the team, to the spirit of the team. But we will try to overcome it," he said.
In the absence of Beck, ranked No 57 in the world, it was left to Kucera, ranked No 297, to face Ljubicic, the world No 9. It was never really a contest, with the 26-year-old Ljubicic overpowering and outwitting his 31-year-old opponent in an hour and 59 minutes.
"I gave it everything," Kucera said. "I only got one break point in the whole match."
Ljubicic said the late change of opponent had not made any difference to his approach. "If you get [Roger] Federer instead of [Rafael] Nadal, now that's a change," he said. "But the difference between Kucera and Beck wasn't that big."
Whoever wins the final will become the 12th nation to have their name engraved on the famous trophy in its 106-year history, and the fifth different winner in the last five years.
Neither nation has won before, although Croatia's captain, Nikki Pilic, captained Germany to success in 1988, 1989 and 1993. If Croatia prevail this weekend, Pilic will be the first captain to win the trophy for two different nations.
Beck remains nominated for today's doubles, with Mihal Mertinak, to face Ljubicic and Ancic. However, the doubles line-ups can be changed up to one hour before the match. In tomorrow's reverse singles, Kucera replaces Beck to play Ancic, with Ljubicic scheduled to meet Hrbaty.
Goran Ivanisevic, the 2001 Wimbledon champion, and Ivo Karlovic, are Croatia's other players, but are not expected to be used unless Pilic decides to rest one of his singles players.
* McEnroe, 46, will return to the ATP tour in February, after a 14-year absence, to play doubles in the San Jose tournament. He retired from the tour in 1992 with a record 77 singles (seven Grand Slams) and 77 doubles titles. He will team up with Sweden's Jonas Bjorkman, 33. "We are coming to play San Jose for one reason - to win the title," said McEnroe, who has kept fit by playing in seniors and exhibition tournaments.