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Monday, December 12, 2005

THE CUP THAT CHEERS…

Overstayed the Sunday night chill to watch an enthralling Davis Cup tie going the distance in Bratislava, the mercurial Croatia finally downing a feisty Slovakia 3-2, a contest I had called a 5-0 drubbing in favour of the eventual champions. How little we know ! (Ed—Er, you know !)

Hats off to the Slovaks under Big Cat Mecir—first Karol Beck, who even at his best may have been caught short, couldn’t pass a fitness test and then for the second set of rubbers, Karol Kucera , that old warhorse ruled himself out so it was left to a Challengers stalwart, Michal Mertinek to try and match Ancic’s prowess, who eventually won, incredibly, his first live rubber this year and won the Croats the Cup. Hrbaty’s victory against a fitter, stronger and an in-form Ljubicic would be one of the best Cup performances I’ve seen and made the tie appear far far closer than what it ought to have been.

After a slow start where they held off an inexplicably paralysed USA on their turf, where both Roddick and Agassi were outplayed by Ivan Ljubicic, the undisputed hero of this year’s triumph. The Bryan twins actually lost to Ancic & Ljubicic and that was the turning point..
Agassi seemed to run out of ideas and perhaps that waning American patriotism stemming from an Iranian lineage caught up with him-he’s missed most Davis Cup matches and although he has a great record, he’s hardly ever been there when it mattered. Of late, players like James Blake and Fish, and Richey Reneberg have catapulted themselves to undeserved fame. That other imposter, Sampras publicly eschewed the Davis Cup, and ended his career with a 15-8 record, a win-loss percentage that is just about what Leander has managed; despite Lee playing most matches against higher ranked opponents and Sampras, almost certainly the favourite in all matches. Again, his Hellenic ancestry may have asserted itself.

Having stopped the USA in their tracks, Croatia got better and beat Romania and Russia before reaching their first ever Finals. All credit to the balding Ljubicic—a single handed effort. The Slovaks have an even more unbelievable story. They humbled the defending champions, Spain before ousting Holland and then Argentina, all facile 4-1 victories, a truly remarkable team effort. Hrbaty, a former World Junior Champion, has had more success than other junior champs like him, Jason Stoltenberg, Nicolas Pereira, Leif Shiras, Oleg Ogdorov among others, and has been an outstanding team player, having won the Hopman Cup partnering the wispy Daniela Hantuchova, who I missed sorely during the tie.

Another curious aspect seems to be that although the home team gets to pick the surface, practically the climate and the players, the results show otherwise. Despite the overwhelming odds against the visitors, they appear to have fared well—in the past decade or so, teams like France, USA, Australia, Sweden and now Croatia have successfully conquered foreign conditions and worthy opponents. Some home teams have made hosting the tie in obscure far-flung outposts in blustery winds and biting chill an art form. So one will hear about venues like Gotenberg, Malmo ( hometown of Mats Wilander ), Nice and Sochi, a Russian hamlet by the Black Sea that the devious Russians Kafelnikov and Safin have tried to exploit without success.

My guess is that there’s no feeling quite like getting your hands on the unwieldy and homely Cup. Sober men have turned crooners –Alex Corretja couldn’t stop singing and serenading when Spain won the first time, Nicklas Kulti has played the guitar on National television and even Becker was jumping around when West Germany won. Mario and Ivan will celebrate long and hard !

Already the naïve public clamour for shorter matches and TV-decided schedules, led by the abrasive Americans and one can imagine the already wan interest dipping further. If the curtain does come down , it may be sport’s perennial loss.

And what do you know ? This year even Mary Pierce discovered for herself the boundless joys of team championships and sorely missed winning, losing out to Dementieva and the Russians in the finals of the Fed Cup.

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