WASHINGTON, September 16, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
Well into the fourth hour of the fifth and final rubber of the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas tie between the United States and Croatia in Zadar, situated along the Dalmatian coast of the Adriatic Sea, shadows began to envelop the outdoor red clay court at the Sportski Centar Visnjik. There was some cause for concern. After all, with 40th-ranked Frances Tiafoe and 18th-ranked Borna Coric, representing the U.S. and Croatia, respectively, battling into their fifth set – a match that was filled with plenty of shifts in momentum – one wondered if there would be enough daylight to complete the World Group semifinal with Sunday’s sunset scheduled for 7:06 p.m. local time. Certainly, even as the light faded behind the court, the noise within it remained constant.
As it happened, there were just three minutes to spare until sunset as match point arrived. However, it was just enough for Coric, 21, to put the finishing touches on a remarkable 6-7 (0), 6-1, 6-7 (11), 6-1, 6-3 come-from-behind victory over the 20-year-old Tiafoe. The rubber lasted four hours and six minutes – leaving both players emotionally drained – but ultimately lifted host Croatia to a 3-2 triumph and advanced the Croatians to the Davis Cup final against defending champion France, which the French will host November 23-25.
Croatia, which won its only Davis Cup crown in 2005, will be seeking its second Davis Cup title in three years. The two nations will reprise a repeat of this summer’s World Cup football final.
The Davis Cup is all about repping one’s country and Tiafoe and Coric, two of the rising stars of tennis, did just that and more – playing through much pandemonium and cacophony. Going into the fifth set, a check of statistics revealed that Coric – playing in his 16th Davis Cup match – was 3-3 in five-set matches, while Tiafoe, playing in his debut tie, was 0-4. This semifinal came down to a one-set shootout. Ultimately, experience prevailed as Coric was more proactive when it mattered and Tiafoe remained reactive. The Croatian managed his nerves just a little bit better. Coric finished with nine service aces, won 74 percent (67 of 90) of his first-serve points, was successful in nine of 17 break-point opportunities and overcame 92 unforced errors by hitting 44 winners. He outpointed Tiafoe 172-133.
Tiafoe, who was trying to become just the third U.S. Davis Cup rookie to win a fifth and decisive rubber since 1900, collapsed after match point – soon after his his backhand landed in the net on Coric’s first match point attempt. Overcome by the emotion of the moment, he buried his head as he sat on his team’s bench while comforted by team captain Jim Courier and the other U.S. team members. Meanwhile, Coric’s Croatian teammates stormed the court, jumping up and down in jubilation. Coric left his team’s celebration briefly to go over and shake hands with Tiafoe and console him. It was a nice expression of sportsmanship by the winner. Then, Coric rejoined his team at the center of the court to celebrate their country’s epic victory. It capped eight hours of topsy-turvy tennis on the final day of this memorable tie.
— Davis Cup (@DavisCup) 16. September 2018
“This is unbelievable. This is the most special moment of my whole life … by far!” said Coric, tasting the joy of victory, during an on-court interview.
Querrey earns first win over Cilic
As the day began under balmy skies, Sam Querrey of the U.S. stunned Marin Cilic of Croatia, 6-7 (2), 7-6 (6), 6-3, 6-4, to even the semifinal tie at 2-all. It proved that anything can happen in a Davis Cup competition.
Querrey, who had never beaten the World No. 6 Cilic in six career meetings, played as if he were competing on a hard court instead of red clay by shortening the points. The American applied pressure throughout while maintaining his cool. The 61st-ranked Querrey overcame adversity and found renewed confidence as the match wore on to its three hour and 11 minute conclusion. Throughout, his U.S. teammates kept shouting, “It’s all you, Sam,” which seemed to inspire him.
“I just hung in there,” said Querrey during an on-court interview after his victory. “I was down a break in the second. (set). Fortunately, I found a way to win that tie-break, down 6-1. From then on out, I just played aggressively – hit my returns well – and held my serve. The pressure just kind of built. Fortunately, that last return just landed in.”
A last-minute decision by Courier to insert Querrey into the U.S. lineup as a replacement for number one nomination Steve Johnson, who lost in straight sets to Coric on Friday, gave the Americans more experience. It proved to be a wise and brilliant move. Querrey, who came into the rubber with a 9-9 lifetime Davis Cup win-loss record, played more relaxed than Cilic and he was fearless, too. After Cilic won the opening set, a key turning point of the match came during a second set tie-break.
Initially, Cilic took a 3-1 lead and increased it to 4-1 when Querrey, off-balanced, netted a forehand return. He upped it to 5-1 with an emphatic service ace. Then, Querrey went to work by saving five set points, and evened it at 6-all as Cilic hit a long forehand. Querrey surged ahead 7-6 as Cilic continued to struggle. Finally, Querrey won the tie-break 8-6 when Cilic netted a makeable backhand return. The American strung together seven consecutive points that stunned all but the handful of American fans, who were waving American flags and banging cow bells in support of the U.S. effort.
“I just missed my opportunities in the second-set tie-break – five set points obviously,” said Cilic. “Afterwards, I felt Sam served really well in the third and fourth sets. I didn’t have many chances on his serve – really, really exceptional serving from him.
“And from my side, I just wasn’t able to find good rhythm off the return, off the ground. I was just missing some balls that I was not missing usually and gave him an opportunity to stay in the match. My level today was not at the top.”
At 5-3 in the third set, Querrey broke Cilic’s serve for the second time in the set, and, perhaps, broke Cilic’s nerve as the Croat smashed his racquet in frustration – earning a warning from chair umpire Carlos Ramos – after hitting his 56th unforced error. (Cilic finished with 72). Querrey answered all queries in taking a two-sets-to-one lead.
As the fourth set unfolded, Cilic’s 14th ace made it 2-all. Querrey followed with an easy hold winning at love for 3-2. Later, as the match moved past the three-hour mark, on serve at 5-4, Querrey gained two match points at 15-40. Cilic responded with a forehand winner that clipped the line. On second match point, Cilic netted a forehand on his second return that gave Querrey the game, the set (6-4), and the rubber.
Querrey, who served 16 aces and hit 32 winners, was asked if this win was the greatest comeback of his career. He hesitated at first, then said, “It’s one of the best matches I’ve played in my career – considering the moment – playing in the Davis Cup, on clay. I’m really happy.
“Before the match, I knew I was 0-6 (against Cilic). They were all close, though. I don’t know what I did differently – I’ll figure it out – but it was great to get a win for the team.
“Considering my year, it’s been tough lately. So, this is a huge boost.”
By winning, Croatia extended its unblemished record against the U.S. in Davis Cup ties to 5-0. As the sun set over Zadar, Croatia felt on top of the world.