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Hrbaty prevails after Ljubicic wins Davis Cup opener

12/2/2005 - Tennis

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia -- Neither Croatia nor Slovakia was
able to move closer to its goal of winning the Davis Cup for the
first time.
The nations, both finalists for the first time, were 1-1 after
opening singles matches Friday. That means the best-of-five series
won't be decided until the reverse singles Sunday.
Dominik Hrbaty of Slovakia defeated Mario Ancic 7-6 (4), 6-3,
6-7 (4), 6-4 to even the tie after Croatia's Ivan Ljubicic beat
surprise starter Karol Kucera 6-3, 6-4, 6-3.
Slovakia captain Miloslav Mecir put Kucera into the opening
singles as a replacement for Karol Beck, who withdrew because of a
lingering left-knee injury which has sidelined him for more than a
month.
Beck also faced unconfirmed reports that he failed a drug test
during the semifinal win over Argentina, but denied on Thursday
that he tested positive. The International Tennis Federation said
it had no comment.
Kucera had lost five of only nine matches he played all year,
and plans to retire after the final. Neither he nor Beck, however,
was expected to topple Ljubicic, who won two tournaments in
October, finished runner-up in two others and was ranked ninth in
the world.
"I was surprised by the late substitution. It's the first time
it's happened to me," Ljubicic said. "But both players are very
similar and I've beaten them both before."
Ljubicic moved within two victories of tying John McEnroe's 1982
record of 12 Davis Cup wins in a single year -- eight singles and
four doubles.
"Honestly, I am not thinking about breaking any records,"
Ljubicic said. "But I'm really glad that I broke 10 live rubbers
today."
All 10 of his victories have been in matches played with the
overall result still at stake -- a record since the World Group
format was created in 1981.
"I think that's even bigger than winning 12 in a row,"
Ljubicic said, noting that three of McEnroe's victories were in
dead rubbers when the result had already been decided.
Kucera said he had no answer to Ljubicic's effective serve and
powerful groundstrokes.
"It was very difficult for me to prepare for this match because
I haven't played much this year," Kucera said.
The capacity crowd of 4,000 in the Sibamac Arena -- split about
evenly between home fans and Croatian visitors -- produced a
typically noisy Davis Cup atmosphere with rattles, horns, drums and
inflatable Thunder Stix.
Perhaps sensing that Hrbaty was its best hope, the Slovak side
of the crowd became very active in the second singles.
Ancic entered the match with a 1-3 record in Davis Cup this
year, and his play again was inconsistent. He lost the second set
on a double fault, only to rally in the third, hitting a forehand
winner to get back into the match.
But it was Hrbaty who fired a forehand winner to break serve for
a 3-2 lead, and the Slovak was ahead for good.
Hrbaty, Slovakia's leading player, revived the home team's hopes
when he won on a backhand into the net by Ancic. Hrbaty bowed to
the crowd, kissed his fingertips and placed them over his heart.
"I said before and it was confirmed today that victory in this
tie leads through Mario Ancic," Hrbaty said, singling out
Croatia's No. 2 as the weak link.
Beck remained nominated for Saturday's doubles with Mihal
Mertinak against Ljubicic and Ancic, who are undefeated this year
in the Davis Cup. However, the doubles lineups can be changed up to
one hour before the match.
In Sunday's reverse singles, Kucera replaces Beck to play Ancic,
with Ljubicic scheduled to meet Hrbaty.
The ITF said a team can change its singles lineup after the draw
if the referee determines a player is "incapacitated by illness,
injury, or other unavoidable hindrance."
If Croatia takes the title, Nikki Pilic will become the first
captain to win the trophy for different nations. He led Germany to
Davis Cup titles in 1988, 1989 and 1993.