POTCHEFSTROOM, SOUTH AFRICA: Croatia have stolen a march on South Africa following their doubles win in their Davis Cup by BNP Paribas tie at a sweltering Potchefstroom, in South Africa, on Saturday.
The doubles victory has secured Croatia a 2-1 lead in their promotion/relegation play-off on the hardcourts at the Fanie du Toit Sports Stadium, ahead of Sunday's singles matches. Croatia predictably changed their doubles line-up after they initially named Antonio Veic and Nikola Mektic as their players but in keeping with the rules they exercised their option to strengthen their hand by sending out Marin Cilic and Ivan Dodig instead.
South Africa also sent out a different side to the one they nominated on Thursday, but their change was prompted by injury concerns around their No. 1 Kevin Anderson, who took to the court with his left leg heavily strapped for his singles match on Friday, when he defeated Dodig.
The word from the SA camp was that Anderson was being rested as a protective measure after some treatment ahead of his singles match on Sunday. As a result, Rik de Voest was paired with Raven Klaasen, the SA squad's reserve.
The Cilic-Dodig combination proved too powerful for the SA duo De Voest-Klaasen and ran out straight-sets winners with a 62 64 36 61 in a contest lasting just under four hours.
There was a school of thought that South Africa didn't do their cause any good on Saturday when they rested Anderson, rather than fielding him and boost their chances of winning the doubles. But SA captain John Laffnie de Jager explained after the doubles match that Anderson was nursing a hip injury and it was decided to rest him instead.
"Anderson complained that his hip was hurting after Friday's singles," said De Jager. "I would have loved to play Kevin but that would mean that he wouldn't be 100%. Earlier (this morning) he was looking good when he was hitting balls, but we don't have control over the injuries."
Goran Prpic, Croatia's Davis Cup coach, said his team was taken by surprise when Raven Klaasen pitched for the doubles, instead of Anderson.
"We saw him (Anderson) practising earlier today and he looked okay so we were surprised when he didn't play doubles," said Prpic. "It was then that I heard about Anderson's injury for the first time. But we''ll come back on Sunday morning leading 2-1 in the tie, and it's important that we try for a win in the first match, rather than leave it for later."
Despite, the defeat the South Africans will feel pleased with their challenge, especially as they've never played together as a team before. Had they taken their chances, which in a nutshell amounted to 13 break point opportunities - they converted only one, the final outcome might have been different.
The two teams started out the day at 1-all after the opening singles rubbers on Friday. The South African No. 1 Anderson gave the country the start they hoped for when he recorded a 63 64 36 76 (5) win over Croatia’s Ivan Dodig in the opening singles match.
However, disaster followed for the hosts, when their No. 2 Izak van der Merwe threw in the towel after 51 minutes when he was trailing 60 60 against Croatia’s top player Marin Cilic. It was a crippling blow for South Africa's quest to return to the top tier of men’s team tennis as the Cilic victory meant the tie was reduced to a stalemate.
Afterwards, van der Merwe said the wrist injury came out of the blue and he first became aware of it when he woke up Friday morning.
“I felt some discomfort in the morning,” he said. “But I thought if I took some pain killers it would ease as I got warmer. I didn’t see it coming and I’ve never had it before.”
De Jager later confirmed that the injury means van der Merwe will be on the sidelines for at least six weeks.
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Marin Cilic (CRO) - 17/09/11
Captain John-Laffnie de Jager (RSA) - 17/09/11
Rik de Voest (RSA) - 17/09/11
Raven Klaasen (RSA) - 17/09/11