Hrbaty prevails after Ljubicic wins Davis Cup opener

Updated: December 2, 2005, 3:52 PM ET
Associated Press

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.

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press