Three days of unrelenting drama ended in a blaze of red flares and glory when Mario Ancic beat Slovakia's Michal Mertinak 7-6, 6-3, 6-4 to claim a 3-2 victory for Croatia in the Davis Cup final on Sunday.
The 21-year-old sealed victory on his second match point and was promptly mobbed by his ecstatic team mates, including former Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic and Ivan Ljubicic, the player who took them to the final virtually single-handed.
With hundreds of celebrating fans going berserk in the Sibamac Arena, Croatia captain Niki Pilic paid tribute to his team who became the first unseeded nation to win the trophy.
"The Davis Cup is one of the greatest competitions in the world and I'm so proud that my team is number one in 2005," said Pilic, who is the first captain to win the title with two different nations, having triumphed three times with Germany.
There is no doubt this one is the sweetest.
"Just because some nations are bigger, it doesn't mean they are better than we are," he added. "What's important is the feeling that with my own people we won it and for us it's an historic moment."
Ancic, who like Pilic is a native of Split, chose the perfect time to win his first live singles rubber of the year, coming to the rescue after Slovakia's Dominik Hrbaty had beaten Ljubicic in a five-set thriller to make it 2-2.
Sadly for Ljubicic, who woke up with a stiff neck and was sick during his 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 defeat, fell one win short of matching John McEnroe's 1982 feat of 12 straight victories in a Davis Cup year, although the team's debt to him is enormous.
"I took a chance, I decided to play," said the 26-year-old, who declared himself fit little more than an hour before he was due on court. "Then after the second set I went to the toilet to throw up."
Ljubicic looked shattered after his three hour 20 minute defeat by an inspired Hrbaty, but thanks to Ancic he could still celebrate the end of a stellar year.
"I think it's a fantastic win, this will never be forgotten, it will be written in the books forever," he said.
Ancic has lived in Ljubicic's shadow during the run to the final, but emerged to outclass world number 165 Mertinak, a 26-year-old better known for doubles.
Mertinak was only named to play the fifth rubber 15 minutes before it begun, Slovakia's captain Miloslav Mecir preferring him tothe more experienced Karol Kucera.
Kucerahad only been called up for Friday's first singles against Ljubicic after Slovak number two Karol Beck, who denied a doping rumour on Thursday, was ruled out with a bad knee.
Mertinak played a solid enough first set, but Ancic cruised through the tiebreak 7-1and, apart from a brief wobble in the third set when he was broken, rarely looked in danger.
"It was 2-2, a must-winsituation, there could be no excuses," said Ancic. "I think I stepped up in the tiebreak and from that moment I was in control."
Mecirwas gracious in defeat.
"Thebest team won but all my players were fantastic," he said, adding that choosing between Mertinak and Kucera had been a tough call.
The atmosphere for the decisive rubber was electric, but nothing like as highly-chargedas for Sunday's pulsating first singles.
Hrbaty had lost all five meetings with Ljubicic, but as he had done against Ancic on Friday to level the tie at 1-1,he produced tennis of the highest quality.
"In terms of mental pressure it was the most difficult match of my career," said the 27-year-oldwho threw all his rackets into the crowd after clawing Slovakia level.
He was outgunned early on, Ljubicic pumelling seven aces and countless searing winners to take the opener in 34minutes.
Hrbaty launched a stunning counter-attack, however, that rocked an increasingly weary-lookingLjubicic back on his heels.
Hrbatybroke Ljubicic's mighty serve for the first time in the second game of the second set, then broke twice in the third set as the momentum shifted completely his way.
Ljubicicclawed one break back but Hrbaty hung on grimly to move two sets to one in front.
Ljubicic dug deep in a fourth set, then pounced for a decisive service break as Hrbaty went 0-40 down at 3-4.He closed out the set in ruthless fashion.
Hrbaty had the advantage of serving first in the fifth, forcing his opponent to serve to stay in the match at 4-5.
Withthe noise deafening, Ljubicic saved one match point with a backhand winner and another with a big first serve.
Hrbatywas relentless, however, and clinched victory when Ljubicic netted an attempted backhand pass.
His efforts proved in vain, though, as Ancic made sure it was Croatia, who became the 12thnation to have its name engraved on the famous old trophy.