Zagreb, Oct 29: In December 2005, it looked like a fairy tale. Croatia had won their first Davis Cup title and had four top-class players in the ranks.
Ivan Ljubicic, Mario Ancic, Ivo Karlovic and Goran Ivanisevic formed the team but since that memorable final victory over Slovakia things have taken a bad turn.
Ex-Wimbledon champion Ivanisevic has retired. Ljubicic, winner of 11 of his 12 Davis Cup matches in 2005, is likely to withdraw to focus on his tight ATP schedule and Karlovic refuses to play, complaining of ''unfair treatment'' in the past.
The depleted team quickly dropped from the prestigious World Group this year after defeats by Germany and Britain and now seek a return ticket, starting with Italy in April.
The torch-bearer remains 23-year-old Ancic, although he has been out of action for most of the year with health problems.
Croatia's tennis officials remain upbeat, however.
''The Davis Cup trophy was extremely important for us and given the circumstances I don't think relegation should be seen as a tragedy,'' said Marina Mihelic, a top official with the Croatian Tennis Association (HTS).
Goran Prpic, who coaches the Davis Cup and women's Fed Cup teams, said: ''With good health, I believe we can overcome Italy.
''Beyond that, to have a strong team again, we'll have to wait for Marin Cilic to mature in the next two years or so and join Ancic.''