Sunday, December 4, 2005

Croatia Rules Tennis World with wins in Bratislava and Bradenton

Croatia Rules Tennis World with Wins in Bratislava and Bradenton
©Colette Lewis 2005
Bradenton FL--

When Croatians Marin Cilic and Nikola Mektic took the court for the boys 18 final at the Eddie Herr International Championships, their country’s quest for its first Davis Cup still hung in the balance.

But as the two boys from Zagreb demonstrated all week with their big ---but stylistically different-- games, Croatia is likely to be a tennis power for many years to come.

Cilic, the top seed, rode his powerful serve to a 6-3, 7-5 win over his much less physically imposing friend and warm-up partner, reversing the tide that had produced wins for Mektic in their last two meetings.

"We’ve known each other since we were ten," said Cilic, who turned seventeen in September, "so it’s a long friendship. It was a tough match today."

Mektic managed to break Cilic twice in the second set and was serving for it at 5-4, but lost the next three games, and with them, the chance for the upset.

"I was serving from the bad side, the worse side," Cilic said, referring to the breezy conditions that seemed more pronounced on Court 15. "When I played with the wind it was easier, so I was able to break him back."

Mektic, who turns seventeen in a few weeks, showed occasional glimpses of the deceptively effective shotmaking that had baffled his opponents in the quarters and semis and, in one of the tournament’s biggest upsets, second seed and U.S. Open Junior champion Ryan Sweeting in the Round of 16.

But Mektic needed more consistency than he displayed to dent Cilic’s confidence, which has grown dramatically since his victory at the Osaka Mayor’s Cup in October gave him a opportunity to finish 2005 as the World Junior Champion, a title he can claim by winning the Orange Bowl next week at Key Biscayne.

"I didn’t play my best game today," said Mektic, who has played only three junior tournaments in the United States. "It was tough to play and the wind was very strong. But I’m not disappointed at all. I’m happy to be here in the final, I didn’t expect that so it’s good to me."

When told that Ljubicic had lost to Hrbaty and that the Davis Cup would hinge on the fifth rubber, Cilic and Mektic completed their interview requests and headed to cheer on their country, succinctly summed up by Cilic as:

"Small Country. Big Players."

Top seeds Ryan Sweeting, from the Bahamas, and partner Dusan Lojda of the Czech Republic, downed Jesse Levine of the United States and Clay Donato of Canada 6-4, 6-4 to claim the the boys 18s doubles title. Levine, who won the 2004 18s doubles title with partner Michael Shabaz, played only doubles this year, entering at the insistence of Nick Bollettieri, who gave the two IMG students a wild card. Levine and Donato, who were unseeded, won a Pro Circuit Futures title together last month in Canada.

The Slovak Republic may have lost the Davis Cup Sunday, but they can claim the 2005 girls 18 Eddie Herr Champion, as third seed Dominika Cibulkova defeated Sorana Cirstea of Romania 6-3, 4-6, 6-0.

After grinding through two long three-setters on Friday and Saturday, the latter a third set tiebreak thriller over Evgeniya Rodina of Russia that lasted nearly three hours, the petite Cibulkova admitted to some aches and pains.

"When I was warming up with my coach, it was like, everything was hurt, but in the match, I didn't think about it."

Up 4-3 and 40-15 in the second set, Cibulkova let down a bit and the next thing she knew, she was facing another third set, this one for a Grade 1 championship. And having lost in the 2004 Eddie Herr 18s final, Cibulkova, 16, was determined not to squander the opportunity this year.

"I was a little bit angry, you know," Cibulkova said, "because I was supposed to win the second set. I said I can lose it, so in the third set, in the final I just did everything. I thought to myself 'come on, play your game and you will be okay'".

But after sending a text message to her mother in the Slovak Republic and congratulating Cilic on his win, Cibulkova collected her trophy and a few T-shirts and headed off for the Orange Bowl. Asked what she would do to celebrate, she answered, "Nothing special--get in the car and head to Miami." Where she can only hope that her first round match is easier than her last three at the Eddie Herr.

The girls doubles championship proved equally disappointing for Sorana Cirstea, when she and fellow Romanian Raluca Olaru, the second seeded team, dropped a heartbreaking 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (3) decision to top seeds Aymuni Morita of Japan and Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark. The tournament's final contest, delayed until mid-afternoon due to the length of the Cirstea-Cibulkova singles match, was a hard-fought battle that raged for more than two hours, providing a fitting conclusion to a dramatic ten days of tennis action.