ZAGREB, Croatia — A Croatian fan sitting courtside waved a sign as James Blake was about to serve: "You can't beat without Pete."
The United States certainly didn't have Pete Sampras on Sunday when it was eliminated by Croatia in the first round of the Davis Cup.
These are different times for the Americans at the Davis Cup. Instead of Sampras or Andre Agassi, or even the injured Andy Roddick, it was left to James Blake to keep their prospects alive.
Blake, the team leader at 23, lost to Ivan Ljubicic, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-3, assuring Croatia's advance. In a second singles reduced to best-of-three, Mario Ancic defeated Taylor Dent, 7-6 (5), 3-6, 7-6 (10), to give Croatia a 4-1 victory. Dent replaced Mardy Fish.
At one point, Blake shouted at the fan with the Sampras banner, "Put the sign down!"
A fan in the stands replied, "Go home James."
The United States is indeed going home to regroup. It has more Davis Cup titles than any other nation, but has been ousted in the first round two of the last three years. Now the Americans face a playoff in September to stay in the elite 16-team group.
Croatia, on the other hand, will play Spain in the quarterfinals in April. Neither Croatia nor the former Yugoslavia has ever reached the Davis Cup final.
In other World Group matches, it was: Argentina 5, Germany 0; Australia 4, Britain 1; Russia 3, Czech Republic 2; France 4, Romania 1; Switzerland 3, the Netherlands 2; Spain 5, Belgium 0; and Sweden 3, Brazil 2.
In other quarterfinals in April, Sweden plays Australia, Switzerland plays France and Argentina faces Russia.
Since becoming U.S. Davis Cup captain two years ago, Patrick McEnroe has not won an away match.
"This one hurts more than the other ones because I felt we could go all the way this year," he said. "But there is a thin line between doing that and losing in the first round."
Blake played his first Davis Cup match 15 months ago. No one else on the team had played a Davis Cup singles match before this year. The United States has not won this event since 1995. Blake pledged a new generation would change that.
"We're going to come through one of these times," he said.
But on Sunday he was overpowered by Ljubicic's serve on the fast indoor court and unable to control play from the baseline. Ljubicic, who had 29 aces against Blake, was a winner in three matches this weekend.
*--* The United States has not won the Davis Cup since 1995 and is winless on foreign soil since Patrick McEnroe took over as captain two years ago. A look at first-round U.S. exits since 1974: Year 1st round opponent Score 1974 Colombia 4-1 1983 Argentina 3-2 1987 Paraguay 3-2 1993 Argentina 3-3 2001 Switzerland 3-2 2003 Croatia 4-1 Note: All losses took place on foreign soil