Pavic and Marach all set for doubles defence

  • Dan Imhoff

Its shores skirt the idyllic Adriatic Sea, making it better known for luring some 18 million tourists a year – four times the number that call this small Balkan nation home.

Yet Croatia, in the 28 years since its independence, has carved out a name for producing tennis champions, a production line the envy of many far larger tennis powerhouse nations.

Iva Majoli led the way with her surprise triumph over Martina Hingis at Roland Garros 1997, before Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, Goran Ivanisevic, Marin Cilic and Ivan Dodig joined the club.

A Cilic-led team handed the Croats their second Davis Cup trophy last season, 13 years after their first.

But one member of that successful squad, Mate Pavic, had already secured a prize in 2018 to far less fanfare. It was an achievement none of his compatriots before had accomplished – the world No.1 ranking.

The 25-year-old became the youngest No.1 in doubles last May, since a 24-year-old Todd Woodbridge in 1996. Not even the more celebrated Ivanisevic – another left-handed Split native – rose above world No.2 in singles.

Pavic and the 38-year-old Austrian, Oliver Marach, started 2018 emphatically, winning the first three tournaments of the season, highlighted by their first Grand Slam title at Melbourne Park.

“It feels special to come back,” Pavic said. “Our results last year bring out the good memories. Obviously the start, winning the Australian Open, we won three tournaments, winning 17 matches in a row, also played the final at the French [Open], then finished No.1 so the whole year was great.

“And for me, to play Davis Cup in the semis at home – I lost 7-6 in the fifth so that was not easy, but it was a special feeling that you don’t feel that often. It was a great finish to the year.”

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If Pavic and Marach win AO2019, they will break even more new ground

While some partnerships took time to find their groove, Marach admitted neither player could have predicted how dominantly they would start last season after less than a year together.

The tour veteran had accumulated 16 doubles trophies in a long career, but had never featured in a Grand Slam final before teaming with the player 13 years his junior.

“We started in 2017 around Miami and our first big success was Wimbledon,” Marach said. “We lost in the final there that year and ended up around No.10.

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“Then 2018 we had our best season, had an unreal start, had some great success throughout the year and were privileged to end the year as team No.1.

“The Australian Open, it’s my favourite Grand Slam. It’s I think the 17th or 18th year I’ve come here so I have a lot of friends here so a nice fan group that come to watch.

“Last year was tough because we played against the Colombians and it was like a Davis Cup atmosphere. Now coming back here to defend our title, seeded No.1, it’s amazing.”

Marach and Pavic defeated Italians Simone Bolelli and Andreas Seppi 7-5 6-7(7) 6-0 in the first round  – their first test on the road to defending a Grand Slam title. Should they go all the way, further new ground would be broken.

Both stand to become the first from their respective countries to defend a Grand Slam title and it’s a journey Pavic is thankful won’t go unnoticed.

“A lot of people that are not professionally involved in tennis they play doubles so you get this special feeling at places like here where people are coming to watch,” he said. “It’s a pretty good atmosphere on the outside courts, even from the first round.”