WASHINGTON, September 17, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
At the culmination of eight hours of tennis on the final day of the U.S.-Croatia Davis Cup by BNP Paribas World Group semifinal tie that began with Sam Querrey taking the court against World No. 6 Marin Cilic, needing a win to to survive in order to send the tie to a fifth rubber, the Americans came up just a little bit short.
With the tie even at two rubbers each, thanks to a doubles win by Mike Bryan and Ryan Harrison on Saturday that was followed by Querrey’s four-set upset of Cilic, U.S. Davis Cup rookie Frances Tiafoe faced an experienced Borna Coric in front of an enthusiastic – and cacophonous – crowd. There were trumpets and cowbells and plenty of cheers of “Borna, Borna, Borna!” ringing throughout the noisy Sportski Centar Visnjik, situated in the Dalmatian coastal town of Zadar along the Adriatic Sea, on Sunday afternoon.
There were moments of brilliance shown by these two young future stars – Tiafoe is 20 and Coric 21 – as well as plenty of resiliency. Tiafoe dominated a first-set tie-break by bageling Coric 7-0. Then, down 1-5 in the third set, Tiafoe fought back to win another tie-break, this time 13-11, which was decided by a service ace on the American’s fifth set-point opportunity. However, in the end, as the clock struck 7:02 p.m. and evening began to settle in, Coric emerged the winner, 6-7 (0), 6-1, 6-7 (11), 6-1, 6-3, after four hours and six minutes of emotional effort by both players that truly showed a thrill of victory spirit on the face of Coric – and his Croatian teammates – and the painful agony of defeat as exhibited by Tiafoe, who had reached a point of exhaustion. He collapsed upon reaching the team’s bench, then buried his head as he fought back tears while being consoled by his teammates.
Tiafoe was asked during the U.S. team’s post-tie press conference to describe what the difference between winning and losing was like in the heat of battle. He said, “I thought it was a pretty high-level match. I would say I had a couple of dips. I mean, for the second and fourth (sets), that can’t happen. It is what it is, tennis. I’m young, I’m going to learn from that. But in the fifth, it could have gone either way. (Borna) raised his level; I raised my level. He was too good in the end. Hats off.”
Coric called Croatia’s victory over the Americans “the most special day of my life, by far.” He said that without the home crowd’s support, “I would lose in four sets for sure, because my head was … I don’t know how you say it, maybe ‘deep in the water’ if you know what I mean.
“I started to feel nervous, I started to feel tired, I started to look at the score. Then, I was like, ‘OK, I need to win two more sets.’ It was real difficult, but like I said, the crowd got me going and then I got my momentum.”
Afterward, U.S. team captain Jim Courier was asked what this weekend’s performance meant for the depth of American tennis. He said, “Obviously, I’m very proud of the guys. If you saw everyone on the bench, there was a great team spirit with this group, and to have a rookie perform the way that Frances did in the fifth match is very impressive. What Sam did in turning his match around was kind of mind-boggling. So, there’s a lot to process from today.
“It’s been a really exciting day – hard fought – and the Croatians deserve a tremendous amount of credit the way they bounced back. However, I couldn’t be prouder of these guys. They laid it all out there. Fought hard. Played as well as they could, and we had one great win and we had one great fight today.”
Tiafoe said there was much he would take home with him from his Davis Cup debut. “Everyone’s so invested,” he said. “I was doing it for something more than just myself, and it means way more. It’s definitely a tough loss – and I’m going to learn from it and definitely bounce back.”
With its fifth career tie victory over the U.S., Croatia advances to the 2018 Davis Cup final against France, which the French will host November 23-25. The U.S., which played without John Isner and Jack Sock, was attempting to return to the Davis Cup final for the first time since 2007. Instead, the Croatia-France pairing will be the last Davis Cup final under the current World Group format. While the U.S. has automatically qualified for the new-format 2019 Davis Cup championship rounds (next November) by reaching the semifinals this year, the team returns home feeling a sense of unfinished business.