DAVIS CUP U.S. loses in first round to Croatia
The Americans were without their top players, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick.
ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) -- Ivan Ljubicic almost gave up playing Davis Cup six years ago.
The Americans wish he had.
Ljubicic and his Croatian teammates eliminated the United States in the first round Sunday, the second time in three seasons that the Davis Cup's most successful nation has bowed out early.
The 23-year-old Ljubicic beat James Blake 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-3 to give Croatia an insurmountable 3-1 lead. In the inconsequential second singles, Mario Ancic defeated Taylor Dent 7-6 (5), 3-6, 7-6 (10) to give Croatia a 4-1 victory.
The Americans still can't win without their top players. Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi have "retired" from Davis Cup and rising star Andy Roddick was absent this time because of a wrist injury.
U.S. hasn't won since 1995
The United States has won more Davis Cups than anybody else, but none since 1995. Now it faces a playoff in September to stay in the world group.
American captain Patrick McEnroe, who has not won an away match since taking over two years ago, praised Ljubicic.
"I think he had the weekend of his life," he said.
Ljubicic was overpowering, winning three "live rubber" matches against the United States to become only the ninth player in Davis history to do it.
He racked up 29 aces against Blake, had 30 against Mardy Fish on Friday, and added with Goran Ivanisevic for 22 in doubles. Croatia will play in Spain in the quarterfinals. Neither Croatia nor the former Yugoslavia has ever reached the Davis Cup final.
In other World Group matches, it was: Argentina 5, Germany 0; Australia 4, Britain 1; Russia 3, Czech Republic 2; France 4, Romania 1; Switzerland 3, the Netherlands 2; Spain 5, Belgium 0; and Sweden 3, Brazil 2.
In other quarterfinals in April, it will be: Sweden vs. Australia, Switzerland vs. France and Argentina vs. Russia.
Ljubicic grew up as a Croatian living in neighboring Bosnia and fled his homeland in 1992. He learned some of his tennis when an Italian club brought the rising young star to Italy to practice and escape the war.
By 1997 he was good enough to be on Croatia's team playing a Davis match in Finland. But he lost three straight matches and felt so bad he almost gave up Davis Cup.
Blake had a few scattered chances against Ljubicic, but the Croatian's serve was too much on the fast indoor court. And Blake was unable to control play from the baseline when there were rallies.
The match swung in the third set.
Blake broke serve in the third game, ending Ljubicic's run of 42 service games in the tie without a break. But Ljubicic broke back in the eighth game, evening the set at 4-all.
Blake suddenly lost his concentration in the game and fell behind love-40, shouting out to a fan: "Put the sign down." A fan in the stands replied: "Go home James."
Blake was never the same after that.
Ljubicic held serve in the next game, and then broke Blake to win the set.
Lopsided final set
The final set was the most lopsided as a dispirited Blake was unable to hold off Ljubicic, who won the match when Blake netted a forehand.
"That comeback in the third set I think was the key of the match," Ljubicic said. "He [Blake] slowed down a little bit, missed a couple of balls. I hit a great passing shot. It all happened very quick I didn't even have a chance to think about it."
Blake said Ljubicic's serve was too big. He also failed to convert the few chances he had.
"You don't get any rhythm on his serve, and on your serve you have to be so focused because you know he can hit four aces the next game."