POTCHEFSTROOM, SOUTH AFRICA: The first day dished up its fair share of excitement, tension and finally anti-climax as the minnows from Europe/Africa Group 1, South Africa, clashed with the World Group outfit and the 2005 World Champions, Croatia, at sweltering Potchefstroom, in South Africa, on Friday.
South African No. 1 Kevin Anderson provided the excitement at the start by taking an early 2-0 set lead but then he dropped a set to make for a very tense finish before he signed off with a 63 64 36 76 (5) win in the opening rubber of the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas play-off on the hard courts at the Fanie du Toit Sports Stadium.
And South Africa were still savouring Anderson's conquest when the next match between Izak van der Merwe and Marin Cilic came to an abrupt end after only 51 minutes. Van der Merwe was overcome by pain in the match after losing the opening two sets 60 60, he threw in the towel, which meant the day ended with an overall 1-all rubber scoreline.
The South African No. 2 Van der Merwe said afterwards that he woke up this morning with a pain in his wrist. "This wrist pain is not something that I experienced before and I have no idea where it comes from," said Van der Merwe. "I saw the doctor earlier on and I had pain-killers. Before the match I thought I could manage, but once we started playing it became painful.
"I couldn't carry on any longer and I don't know what's my situation is in respect of playing on Sunday in the reverse singles."John-Laffnie de Jager, South Africa’s captain, said Van der Merwe's demise was a massive setback for South Africa.
"We won the first match, and that gave us such a sense of feeling good because Izak was in top form throughout the week and we were expecting great things from him," said De Jager. "But these things happen in sport, and we have to move on. This situation brings Rik (de Voest) into the picture and he does have Davis Cup experience, so all is not lost.”
Earlier, Anderson made heavy weather of defeating a tough-as-teak opponent in Croatia's Ivan Dodig who briefly threatened a fight-back before he was subdued in the fourth set. Any other result would have proved disastrous for South Africa's promotion hopes, as their Europe/Africa Group 1 team clashed with the World Group outfit on the opening day of the three-day clash.
Anderson needed no time to feel out the conditions and 38 minutes later he disposed of Dodig's opening-set challenge. Dodig really battled with Anderson's booming serve which helped the South African to ease into his service games. Anderson grew in confidence as Dodig absorbed his bombardment and he didn't look like recovering after his setback in the 6th game.
Dodig looked resigned to his fate as the first set wound its course but he came back at the start of the second with a far more determined effort, which forced Anderson, wearing a knee guard, to pull out all the stops. Again, a lone break of serve, this time in the eighth, proved his undoing as Anderson moved on to 63 64 advance.
The 2-0 cushion would have proved useful for the home boy Anderson as he looked to close out the match in this best-of-five-sets encounter. But Dodig dug deep into his reserves of fighting spirit as the turned the match on its head when he took a 3-0 lead in the third set, threatening a fight-back of massive proportions.
Anderson didn't do his cause much good as he made numerous unforced errors on his forehand and Dodig bided his time with a workmanlike performance before winning the third 63, and Croatia's fightback remained on course.
The fourth set turned out to be the 'battle of the serve' and in the end Anderson prevailed in the tie-break 75 after Dodig fired his return of serve into the net off the final serve of the match.
There was great all round relief in the South African camp as Anderson avoided a likely fifth set, more so as the Croatian seemed to grow stronger as the match wore on in sweltering conditions.
Afterwards, Dodig said he took too long to find his rhythm and paid the price. "I was a little bit too slow at the start because I was battling to find my rhythm," said Dodig. "And then I took too long to find my rhythm but he was better than me today, and deserved to win. I didn't give up at any stage and even at two sets I was prepared to fight right to the end. That's the way I am."
On Saturday, the doubles match will be played, which means one team will take the lead after day 2.
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Thomaz Bellucci (BRA) - 16/09/2011
Ivan Dodig (CRO) - 16/09/2011
Kevin Anderson (RSA) - 16/09/2011