Croatia hails its Davis Cup star

Goran Ivanisevic, step aside. Ivan Ljubicic is Croatia’s new tennis celebrity.

Ljubicic was hailed as a national icon after leading Croatia to their first Davis Cup final, accounting for all three points in the 3-2 win over Russia in the world-group semifinals.

Ljubicic beat Mikhail Youzhny in five sets in Friday’s singles, teamed with Mario Ancic for a five-set doubles win on Saturday over Igor Andreev and Dmitry Tursunov, then swept Nikolay Davydenko in straight sets on Sunday to seal the victory in the coastal city of Split.

Ljubicic has now won 11 straight matches in Davis Cup play.

“Master of the Davis Cup”, “We worship you, Ljubo” and “Brilliant!” were some of the headlines accompanying Ljubicic’s front-page photo in Monday’s Croatian newspapers.

In one of the most improbable Davis Cup finals, Croatia will face Slovakia for the title in Bratislava from December 2 to 4. Croatia, a nation of 4,5-million, began playing Davis Cup only 12 years ago after the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Slovakia, a nation of 5,4-million, became independent in 1993.

“We shouldn’t stop at this,” Ljubicic said. “No one remembers the finalists. We’re going to [Slovakia] for victory!”

Prime Minister Ivo Sanader sent a telegram of congratulations to the team.

Former Wimbledon champion Ivanisevic, who sat with the team as a coach in Split and danced in celebration on the court, hinted that he could have a playing role in the final.

“I’ll be in Bratislava, one way or another—as a player, coach, ball boy,” he said.

Croats lost some of their passion for tennis after Ivanisevic—who won Wimbledon as a wild card in 2001—retired. The 25-year-old Ljubicic, although ranked 15th in the world, had failed to inspire national adulation.

But Sunday’s victory—and his key role in beating Romania and the United States in earlier match-ups—has finally brought him out of Ivanisevic’s shadow.

“Ljubo was fantastic,” Ivanisevic said.

“In Ljubicic, we had a man who doesn’t recognise the word ‘defeat’,” said the Sportske Novosti daily. The leading daily Vecernji said Ljubicic “will never be the greatest world’s player. But for Croatia ... Ljubo is the greatest.”—Sapa-AP

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