With all that has gone on before, around, and is still to come in the post-mortem for this “final” Davis Cup final, the efforts of the 2018 champions may well be consigned to the back burner.
So let it be said, before anything else, that Croatia’s Marin Cilic is a sporting hero to his country. He is an elegant champion and a deserving one.
And the 30-year-old cemented his legacy by leading Croatia to a 3-1 victory over France Sunday in Lille.
He closed it out with a straight-sets victory over Lucas Pouille – a late substitution for Jérémy Chardy.
In six sets, Cilic did not allow his serve to be broken.
And combined with the effort of young countryman Borna Coric Friday against Chardy, he gave the Croats all they needed.
They hoisted the Cup for the first time in this tennis generation, the second time in the country’s relatively short Davis Cup history.
“This is a weekend from the dreams, it’s just incredible feeling to play like this in the final, without even dropping one serve in three singles matches. Even today , Lucas played a great match. The first set was really, really tough, probably just one point decided the tiebreak,” a serene Cilic said during an on-court interview shortly after the victory.
“We had a feeling that Lucas might be on the court. He didn’t have the best season of his life, but still he’s an incredible player, I felt it would be risky to put Jeremy in. And I felt I might play him,” he added. “Still, he played in incredible match. I was just a little bit better, a bit composed, and just played an incredible match.”
Two Cups for a young nation
France has played the Davis Cup for 100 years. Its first tie, a neutral-site loss to Belgium at Wimbledon, came in 1904.
Croatia’s first tie as an independent nation came in May, 1993.
It was an inauspicious, rather anonymous debut: a 3-2 win over Zimbabwe in a Group I Euro/Africa zone semifinal in Harare. The nation has only been in the World Group for 16 years.
Back then (as with the French and Belgians in 1904), it was a pair of two-man shows.
The Gorans (Ivanisevic and Prpic) squared off against the Blacks (Byron and Wayne). All four played both singles and doubles. Every match was in straight sets. And it was clinched by Prpic over Wayne Black in the deciding rubber.
Just 12 years later, unseeded, Croatia stunned everyone by beating Slovakia and winning the 2005 Davis Cup.
Although, when you look at the resumés of all the players pictured below, it seems not quite a shock as much as destiny in retrospect.
Heartbreak against the Argentines
It seemed meant to be again in 2016. In the quarterfinals against the Americans, Croatia was down 0-2 after Jack Sock came back from two sets to none down against Cilic to win in five, in the opening rubber.
They had to beat the mighty Bryans in the doubles to stay alive. And Cilic and Ivan Dodig did just that before Cilic and Coric rolled to victory in the Sunday reverse singles.
They took care of France at home in the semifinals. But then, in the final – at home again – a tough one.
After a long season, Cilic had expended a lot of energy in almost blowing a 2-0 sets lead to Federico Delbonis, to win in five on opening day. He was then subbed in with Dodig for the doubles, which they won in three close sets.
On Sunday, looking to clinch it, Cilic went up two sets to love against Juan Martin del Potro.
But after 10 sets in about 48 hours, needing just one more set to win, he couldn’t close the door. And then Delbonis became a sporting hero back home in Argentina with a straight-sets win over Ivo Karlovic.
Karlovic had been out of the Davis Cup picture for more than 4 1/2 years, since a losing effort against those same Argentines in the 2012 quarterfinals. But he was pressed into service with Coric unavailable after knee surgery.
A “last” win for Croatia – on the road
Unless something drastically changes in the “new” Davis Cup era to begin in 2019, that turned out to be this fine tennis nation’s last chance to win the Cup at home.
But they did the next best thing – the co-equally good thing – on Sunday. They won it on the road.
“I think this team has done incredibly well through the year, and it’s because of the team that we made it to the final, it’s not because of a chance. Borna came into top form at the right moment and played incredibly well against the U.S., and again here,” Cilic said. “It’s not every day that you become the world champion. And for us it’s a dream come true, and for this nation.”
For longtime captain Zeljko Krajan, that 2016 defeat was tough to swallow
“It’s amazing that we finally crowned it with a victory after the experience of 2016. That was in my mind for a long long time after we lost it,” Krajan, his voice shaking, said during a post-match interview on court. “We are stronger for that experience, even though we lost it. It showed today on the court that Marin was just experienced enough. And you could see that he was mentally very focused, knew what to do.”
Krajan’s dream team came together
Some 25 years after that fairly anonymous debut in Harare, the team was led by Cilic and Dodig – two players of Croatian ethnicity born in the same town in Herzegovina, Medjugorje (and who now call Monte Carlo and the Bahamas home). One of the chair umpires for this weekend’s tie was the Serb Marijana Veljović. The world has changed.
“I say we have a dream team finally from the semifinals, Trust your players, and believe in something. We are a long time together, for seven years. They invested a lot of (the) year in Davis Cup. We all know what the format is, and how many weeks you had to skip throughout the year to play. Sometimes we didn’t always have a full team,” Krajan said.
“And finally we had it. They all gave themselves, and it paid off in the best possible way, winning this las – kind of – Davis Cup in this way. The quality was on our side from the beginning of the weekend, and in the end the quality prevailed.”
(Screengrabs from Davis Cup TV)