Vrijeme Je Za Slavlje, Hrvatska! (It’s Time To Celebrate, Croatia!)

Croatia wins against France in Lille (photo: Davis Cup)

WASHINGTON, November 26, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)

Croatia are the Davis Cup champions for the first time in 13 years and just the second time in this proud nation’s history.

On Sunday, playing before a mostly partisan, French crowd of 24,144 fans inside noisy Stade Pierre Mauroy in Lille, Marin Cilic played steady and focused tennis for two hours and 19 minutes – owning his French opponent, Lucas Pouille, who was inserted into defending champion France’s line-up as a replacement for Jeremy Chardy. Perhaps, it was fitting that Cilic should be the one to clinch the crucial point for Croatia that earned it a well-deserved 3-1 victory over France in the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas Final. He did it with an inch-perfect lob that sailed over Pouille’s head and landed just inside the baseline.

Looking back, Cilic and Borna Coric gave flawless performances during their singles rubbers that enabled Croatia to celebrate winning the 2018 Davis Cup title. Between them, they won nine out of nine sets on the red clay and neither player’s service was broken. Not once.

“It’s not every day that you become a world champion,” an excited Cilic said after he beat Pouille, 7-6 (3), 6-3, 6-3, in the tie-clinching fourth rubber. “For us, it’s a dream come true. We are so passionate, you can see the fans are enjoying themselves. I feel that in Croatia it’s going to be incredible, too.”

Later, in assessing his Sunday performance, which was his 29th career Davis Cup singles win and 39th overall (which includes doubles), Cilic said, “I thought Lucas started well in the first set and just a single point made the difference. After that, I played better and served better. I’m extremely proud of my performance.”

Zeljko Krajan, Croatia’s team captain, called this year’s championship squad “one of the best teams we ever had; it’s like a dream team.”

En route to lifting the Davis Cup trophy, Croatia began the 2018 season with a 3-1 first-round victory over Canada, and followed it with a 3-1 win over Kazakhstan in the quarterfinals. Then, the Croatians went the distance against the United States as Coric proved the difference by winning a five-set, fifth rubber that beat the Americans 3-2 in the semifinals. It advanced Croatia to face France in the finals.

After seven years, said Krajan, “it’s an honor for me to be here. My singles players not only didn’t lose a set, they didn’t lose serve in three matches, which is an unbelievable achievement. It shows you the quality that we produced.”

Meanwhile, Yannick Noah, who closed the book on his third and final term as French team captain, was complimentary of Croatia despite being on the losing side in his last Davis Cup Final. Just a year ago, it was Noah and France who were lifting the Davis Cup trophy. This time, however, he said, “We lost to a better team. We did everything we could to be at this level with the Croatian team.”

The difference makers during the Davis Cup Final were Croatia’s Top 20 duo of Cilic and Coric. Each remained calm and cool – and, just as importantly, in control of their French opponents. Cilic mastered both Pouille and, earlier, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga while Coric set the tone for the weekend with an impressive straight-set win over an ineffective Chardy on Friday. Perhaps, winning it all provided Croatia some solace after losing the FIFA World Cup final to France last summer.

“The three matches Borna and I played … shows how well we played and the level we produced,” said Cilic, who lost a decisive five-set rubber to Juan Martín del Potro of Argentina in the 2016 Davis Cup Final in Zagreb. This time, he played solidly in a tie-clinching situation. He kept his focus all the way to the end when he finished off Pouille in straight sets. “We were both in great form at the right time.”

Before he left Stade Pierre Mauroy for the last time, Noah congratulated Krajan and each Croatian player personally. It was a nice touch of sportsmanship. While it must have hurt deep down that he didn’t go out a winner in his last Davis Cup Final as France’s team captain, Noah remained upbeat and maintained a smile on his face. “We just went to their locker room to congratulate them,” he said. “I think they’re beautiful winners and they deserve it.”

Next year, the Davis Cup will enter a new era and be played like a football World Cup during a one-week, 18-team tournament in Madrid, Spain. For now, though, Croatia is the last team to win a Davis Cup Final in its historic home-and-away format.

Vrijeme je za slavlje, Hrvatska!