Croatia won their Davis Cup play-off tie against South Africa at the Fanie du Toit Sports Stadium, Potchefstroom, on Sunday, after going up 3-1 following Marin Cilic's 64 62 64 win over Rik de Voest in the day's opening tie.
In Sunday's final rubber Croatia wrapped up the tie when Nikola Mektic disposed of South Africa's Raven Klaasen 76(2) 61 to wrap up a great 4-1 conquest for the Eastern European nation.
De Voest was South Africa's surprise entrant in the opening reverse singles rubber after No. 1 Kevin Anderson withdrew from the match at the start of the day with an injured hip. Anderson was South Africa's only real chance of forcing a different result after he raised the country's hopes with a 63 64 36 76(5) win over Ivan Dodig on Friday.
But thereafter South Africa suffered a string of setbacks that wiped out their challenge completely. First Izak van der Merwe was laid low by a wrist injury which forced him to retire after trailing 60 60 against Cilic, and then on Saturday Anderson was ruled out of the doubles and reserve Raven Klaasen was called up.
"I woke up on Sunday thinking I could play but the hip was still pretty sore and I was struggling (to move)," Anderson said. "I went out there on Friday and played my best tennis but then I tweaked my hip pretty badly. I took a break from the doubles on Saturday, thinking that the rest will help me to get back on Sunday, but it didn't work out."
Try as they might, the de Voest-Klaasen pairing didn't do their chances of winning any good when they only converted one of 13 break points on offer against Cilic and Dodig. They forced an extra set but ultimately went down to Cilic and Dodig who closed out the rubber 62 64 36 61, to give Croatia a morale-boosting lead in the tie for the first time.
De Voest's call-up on Sunday morning didn't inspire confidence because the world No. 133 had not played much of late because of a finger injury sustained at the Farmer's Classic in Los Angeles last month. At this stage, de Voest's fitness levels were still way off the desired mark.
On Sunday, Cilic rounded off South Africa's demise with a win over de Voest, but not before the South African halted his victory charge with a brave performance. De Voest's fighting qualities came to the fore towards the end of the first set, prompting the South African camp to ponder whether their charge could do the impossible. Cilic ended the first-set battle in just under an hour.
However, in the second set Cilic showed why he is ranked world No. 26, wearing down de Voest's resolve with solid groundstrokes from the comfort of the baseline. And on the odd occasion when he closed in on the net, his volleys left de Voest stranded.
De Voest offered more stubborn resistance in the third and managed a service break in the fifth, but Cilic bounced back in the next game to keep his match-winning aspirations on track before he ran out a deserving 64 62 64 winner.
Afterwards, de Voest said playing without Anderson meant that the country's Davis Cup hopes were dashed.
"When you're playing in the World Group you'll see the country rely on their top-ranked player and that player is very important for the team's success," said de Voest. "I was just not good enough today and Cilic came up with some great shots.
"It was very difficult without Anderson, even though we enjoyed home ground advantage, and we were able to feed off the crowd. We can't always rely on one player and to play in the World Group the team needs to have depth."
"This is a very young team, and since we are all very good friends, we can stay together for a few years," said Cilic. "With this win we can now look to the future."
"Obviously it's hurting and it's disappointing in the sense that we worked so hard to win this tie," said captain de Jager. "We've come so close now for three years running and we must not give up now, but from the time we lost van der Merwe we were on the back foot and never had a chance to recover because then Anderson was out."