WASHINGTON, September 14, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
Meeting for the fifth time in their shared Davis Cup history, the United States and Croatia began their World Group semifinal tie Friday in Zadar, located on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. It’s an ancient city that’s known for its Roman and Venetian ruins. Going in, Croatia had never lost to the U.S. in its previous four Davis Cup ties. After the first day of their latest tie, the Croatians are well on their way to making it five in a row.
Croatia jumped to an early 1-0 lead on the strength of an impressive straight-set victory by a confident,18th-ranked Borna Coric over No. 30 Steve Johnson, 6-4, 7-6 (4), 6-3, in two hours and 24 minutes on the sunny, outdoor red clay of Zadar’s Sprtski Centar Visnjik, backed by a noisy but enthusiastic crowd that cheered heartily after each of Coric’s points. Then, World No. 6 Marin Cilic dominated his first-time U.S. Davis Cup opponent, 40th-ranked Frances Tiafoe, winning 6-1, 6-3, 7-6 (5). Both performances lifted Croatia to a commanding 2-0 lead heading into Saturday’s doubles rubber. The Croatians need to win just one of their final three rubbers to advance to November’s Davis Cup final.
“It’s definitely what we were hoping for, to have 2-0 on the first day, especially playing against the U.S.,” said Cilic. “Both me and Borna played great matches today – very solid. Luckily, we won both in three sets, didn’t use much energy.
“We have to just keep going and hopefully, even tomorrow, or if it happens on Sunday, to get a third point.”
From the start, it became apparent that Johnson, the top-ranked singles player nominated for the U.S. in the absence of No. 10 John Isner, was no match for Coric. The 21-year-old Croatian won all but 10 of his first-serve points, hit 23 winners and overcame 43 unforced errors. Broken just once, Coric appeared quicker and looked more comfortable on the slow outdoor red clay. Meanwhile, Johnson struggled with his second serve, was broken three times, and committed 53 unforced errors. Coric came from 3-1 down in the second-set tie-break and won six of the last seven points. It’s was Coric’s third Davis Cup win this year.
“Look, I played a very good match,” said Coric. “I was serving very well, I was returning, on moments, good, on moments, no, but that’s OK.”
Johnson complimented Coric afterward. “He’s a phenomenal tennis player, and he’s very comfortable on clay,” he said. “I think if I could replay the second set tie-break, I’d like to have a couple of those forehands back. Other than that, I thought he played great. I left it out there, just came up a little short.”
Then, Team USA, which is hoping to end an 11-year drought from the Davis Cup final, turned its hopes to Tiafoe – and it was a trial by fire for for the 20-year-old, who faced the very experienced Cilic on the Croatian’s home soil. Cilic came in with a 26-10 lifetime win-loss record in Davis Cup singles, including 11-4 on clay. His win, which took two hours and 14 minutes to complete, added to each of those win totals impressively.
Cilic won 12 of the first 13 points of the match, looking composed and playing confident and with much energy, against the tentative American rookie, who committed 42 unforced errors overall. Cilic won the first set on the strength of two service breaks – including the first game of the rubber – to go with five of his 13 service aces and eight of his 29 winners. He impressed throughout by playing hard court-style tennis, striking early on his returns, and kept Tiafoe off balance. Cilic won 52 of his 105 total points on his first serve.
Cilic was complimentary of Tiafoe’s debut, saying, “He showed that he’s capable of playing great tennis.”
Going into the match, Tiafoe exclaimed, “Pretty excited for it. Should be fun. Obviously, getting the chance to play another guy in the top 10 (is great). … I feel when I’m playing good, I’ve got a chance against anyone.”
After his loss to Cilic, Tiafoe said, “It was an unbelievable experience. Obviously, it’s what I wanted to do my whole career, get a chance to play for America. I felt extremely comfortable out there. I played a quality player. … I put myself in the position to extend the match and didn’t, but I’m definitely going to remember this one.”
U.S. Davis Cup captain Jim Courier defended his decision to start Tiafoe. He said on Thursday, “If Frances plays the type of tennis he’s played on tour, he’s going to be extremely competitive. … He’s a player who’s fit, he’s hungry and I don’t think he’s going to be overawed by the occasion. I think he’ll rise to it.”
After Cilic beat Tiafoe to give Croatia a 2-0 lead, Courier said, “The first point of the match was fantastic. We’re thinking, ‘All right, we’re right in this.’ And, then, Marin just lifted a gear. Frances, I thought, played a quality match, and Marin obviously was up to it today.
“We had the mini-break in the tie-break and couldn’t quite hold it, but it was a good learning experience for Frances that hopefully will serve us well. We’ve got to obviously work hard to get to a fifth match, but we’re hoping that we get another chance.”
Unfortunately, for the Americans, they faced an eager Coric and Cilic, both who played some of their best tennis of the year. Now, Croatia is just one more point from the Davis Cup final and Team USA faces an uphill battle the rest of the weekend.
U.S.-Croatia tie notes
• Saturday’s doubles rubber (starting at 2 p.m. local time), pairs No. 1 Mike Bryan and No. 54 Ryan Harrison for the U.S. against No. 4 Mate Pavic and No. 24 Ivan Dodig of Croatia.
• Frances Tiafoe, 20, became the 141st player to represent the U.S. in Davis Cup and the third youngest this century, following Andy Roddick (18) and teammate Ryan Harrison (19).
• Marin Cilic, ranked No. 6, is the highest-ranked player a Davis Cup rookie has had to face in his debut since Tiafoe’s teammate Sam Querrey drew World No. 1 Rafael Nadal of Spain on clay in the 2008 Davis Cup semifinals. Querrey won the first set over Nadal, but lost the match in four sets.
• With Cilic’s win over Tiafoe, he surpassed Ivan Ljubicic as the most successful Croatian in Davis Cup history with 37 career wins.