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Mario Ancic has been branded as a choker for losing matches he had dominated in the first set. He'd been dubbed the "Ancichoke" in October on MTF; when he lost to Dmitry Tursunov two weeks later in Paris after having numerous chances to win in the deciding set's tiebreaker, that nickname seemed confirmed.

Nobody was putting any bets on Ancic pulling his weight in Croatia's Davis Cup final against Slovakia. Most articles written gave Ivan Ljubicic credit for single-handedly carried Croatia to the final.

Ljubicic, who launched Croatia on the road to the final with stunning wins over Andy Roddick and Andre Agassi in the first round in Los Angeles, is playing down his heroics, at least until the mission is accomplished.

"They were great wins but if we lose in the final it's going to be easy to forget them," said the 28-year-old, who fled war-torn Bosnia as a teenager to pursue his tennis career.


With the 21-year-old Ancic struggling of late, the pressure will be on Ljubicic to spearhead Croatia's challenge in the Sibamac Arena on the banks of the Danube.
First-day action saw Ljubicic carry out what he'd been expected to do, which was win his rubber against Karol Kucera. Ancic lived up to the low expectations, falling to Dominik Hrbaty. The second day, Ancic and Ljubicic won the doubles rubber, defeating Hrbaty and Michael Mertinak.

On the final day of the final, though, Hrbaty pulled off a five-set victory over Ljubicic despite being 0-5 in career win-loss against the Croat. This left Ancic to play the make-or-break rubber against Mertinak.
From Davis
The Davis Cup produces heroes, often unlikely ones, and there is no bigger stage in tennis than the deciding fifth rubber in the Final of the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas...

...It was always going to be a tall order for the world No. 165, up against No. 22 Ancic, but Davis Cup habitually pits players from different worlds, in tennis terms, against one another and then produces the unexpected.

"Of course, I felt the pressure," said Mertinak. "I was a little bit shaky at the beginning, but then I cooled down. I tried to do my best. Unfortunately, it didn't work the right way today."

Mertinak did in fact play well above his usual level in singles, and somehow held on to his serve throughout the first set, saving four break points including two in the fisrt game, to eventually force a tiebreak.

That was the cue for Ancic to show his class, and he went up a gear, playing aggressively and grabbing the initiative. He surged to a 6-1 lead, and took the set with a crushing 1-2 combination, a deep return setting up an easy put-away volley after one hour five minutes.

"It was a very nervous start," said Ancic. " Had a lot of breakpoints which I couldn't use. But then I think I really stepped up in the tiebreak. From that moment, I think I was in control of the match."

The rest of the match was by no means a procession, even if Ancic was as he said in control for most of it. He broke in the second game of the second set, but Mertinak earned a break-back point at 1-3. Ancic saved it, then went on to seal the set with an ace, before breaking the Slovak to love at the start of the third set.

To his credit, Mertinak continued to fight bravely, and broke back for 3-all. It seemed that Ancic might be wobbling in the Davis Cup once more, but he regained his composure to break again for 5-4.

Ancic served it out confidently, and although Mertinak saved one match point, a miss-hit forehand on the second floated inches long. The Davis Cup by BNP Paribas belonged to Croatia.
It's been a hard-fought and well-deserved Davis Cup victory for first-time finalist Croatia. Credit should also go to the Slovak Republic, also a first-time finalist. The two countries defeated defending finalist and champion USA and Spain respectively in the first round of World Group action this year.

The year 2006 will see both countries play their first round as away games: Croatia will face off against Austria, and Slovakia will play Chile.
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