Ivan Ljubicic (Croatia) woke up with a stiff neck on the morning of the fourth rubber of the 2005 Davis Cup Final against Slovakia. Ljubicic and Mario Ancic had put Croatia ahead 2-1 with a win in the doubles match the previous day and the title will be decided by today’s reverse singles matches. Ljubicic and Dominik Hrbaty were scheduled to play first. Five minutes before the deadline for withdrawing, Ljubicic still had not decided whether he was fit to play. He was 11-0 in Davis Cup play for the year and he’d beaten Hrbaty all five times they’d met, contributing factors, no doubt, to Ljubicic’s final decision to play the match.

If Ljubicic can win this match, Croatia wins the title. If not, Ancic will play 139th ranked Michal Mertinak in the fifth and deciding rubber.

The noise level was deafening in the building, the Sibamac Arena National Tennis Center in Bratislava, Slovakia. BNP Paribas must have put free thunder sticks on everyone’s seat. Spectators had big base drums and whistles. A popular Ghanaian singer who lives in Slovakia was dressed entirely in military green and held a large military green bell which he repeatedly banged with a wooden mallet. The fans groaned every time a ball landed on the line and helped officials by calling balls out, whether they were or not. As the match progressed, the crowd got louder and made noise for a longer period of time. By the fifth set, the chair umpire had to quiet them before each point could start.

The fans groaned every time a ball landed on the line and helped officials by calling balls out, whether they were or not.

In the opening set of the match, Ljubicic does what Ancic did not do in his second rubber loss to Hrbaty: change pace. Ljubicic hit a lot of backhand slices to make Hrbaty provide his own pace and hit short shots to get Hrbaty to the net where he frequently passed him to easily win the first set.

In the second set, Ljubicic suffered brain lock and got into a hitting match with Hrbaty; a bad idea considering that Hrbaty is one of the most consistent baseline players on the tour. Hrbaty forced Ljubicic into three errors to get a break in the second game and held on to the break to win the set, 6-3. At the end of the set, Ljubicic took a bathroom break and threw up; his stomach was upset from the medication he took for his neck injury. I suppose rushing through a set is preferable to vomiting on the court.

Ljubicic won only 33% of his second serve points in the second set because his neck was so stiff he couldn’t look straight up. The second serve toss is thrown over the player’s head while the first serve toss is thrown in front of the player’s body. Stiff necks only get stiffer, in the third set it was worse: he won 25% of his second serve points. “I was probably tossing the ball low and couldn’t kick the serve as well as I wanted, ” he said.

Since his second serve wasn’t working, Ljubicic used his first serve for both serves and it cost him. In the third set, he hit two double faults in his first service game and another in his second and was quickly down 0-3. Even so, it was his serve that kept him in the match. In between sloppy baseline play and errant service returns when he tried to attack Hrbaty’s second serve, he hit enough service winners and aces to stick around till the middle of the fourth set. At 4-3, Hrbaty hit two double faults of his own to give up the break and Ljubicic won the set to pull even at two sets each.

Ljubicic is miserable in five set matches, his record is 4 and 14 including losses in finals to Rafael Nadal at the Madrid Masters and Tomas Berdych at the Paris Masters.

Ljubicic is miserable in five set matches, his record is 4 and 14 including losses in finals to Rafael Nadal at the Madrid Masters and Tomas Berdych at the Paris Masters. Since we can assume that poor conditioning played a part in the five set losses, it’s even worse for Ljubicic that Davis Cup does not play a fifth set tiebreaker, the match continues until someone wins the set by two games. Hrbaty’s conditioning is superior to Ljubicic’s and Hrbaty is fresher, he didn’t play in the year-end Masters Cup in Shanghai.

But the fifth set doesn’t get to 6-6.

When he was asked why he had never beaten Ljubicic before, Hrbaty said, jokingly we hope, that he hasn’t beaten Ljubicic “Because I haven’t played against him at home.” It was no joke to Ljubicic in the last game of the match. With Ljubicic serving at 4-5 during the third deuce of the game, Hrbaty ran around his backhand and hit a forehand down the line that looked out but was called good. The television announcers were shocked, “No, that’s surely out, ” one said and “That was out, definitely out, ” said another, their authority verified by their line of sight: “We are looking almost right down that line.”

Earlier in the game, Ljubicic had gone for a big second serve and it was called out. He and Croatia’s Davis captain, Niki Pilic, were incensed by the call. When Ljubicic was asked about officiating, he said: “Dominik, (he’s) much more relaxed because he knows if I hit the line it’s going to be called out. It’s much easier to play like that.”

Hrbaty won the game with an approach shot that Ljubicic hit into the net. The score was 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4.

This match was very similar to the Masters Cup final between Roger Federer and David Nalbandian. Despite poor conditioning due to an ankle injury that sidelined him for six weeks, Federer came within two points of winning the match in five sets. Despite his various ailments, Ljubicic came within one point of evening the fifth set at 5-5.

It’s hard to criticize Ljubicic. He finished the year in the top ten, he won his match in the first rubber, and he almost managed to pull this match out despite a stiff neck, an upset stomach, a persistent opponent and a few timely home line calls.

And he has a Davis Cup title. Ancic beat Mertinak in the fifth rubber and Croatia has its Davis Cup.

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