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Pilic is a man for all nations

People with long memories might have caught sight of him on the Tennis Channel coverage of the Serbia-U.S. tie from Belgrade -- a tall, angular figure with straight brown hair and a lopsided grin.

His name is Nikki Pilic, and he will go down in tennis history as a man with a totally unique Davis Cup record. It started when he refused to play Davis Cup for Yugoslavia in 1973 because of professional commitments to the WCT Tour -- resulting in a suspension which became a cause celèbre when the players used it to take a stand against authoritarian amateur rule. The Pilic Affair turned into the Wimbledon boycott by 90 top pros and the governance of the game was changed forever.

Pilic then moved to Munich and became, first, coach and then captain of the German Davis Cup team, winning the Cup three times in the Boris Becker era. Later, after the break up of Yugoslavia, he answered the call of his native country when it emerged as Croatia and captained that team -- becoming the first man to have captained two countries and played for a third.

Pilic was in the captain's chair in Carson, California in 2005 when Ivan Ljubicic beat Andre Agassi to create a shock first-round upset against the United States. It kicked off a campaign that saw Croatia eventually win the Cup against Slovakia that year -- giving Pilic his fourth Davis Cup triumph.

Amazingly, little more than two years later, Pilic assumed the role of Supremo of the Serbian Davis Cup squad -- a position that may turn out to be very awkward for him in the quarterfinals when the Serbs play Croatia in an atmosphere that is going to be doused in patriotic fervor. Even Pilic, who has never been lacking in the self-confidence department, will not take the role of Serbian captain, but his influence is obviously having a beneficial effect on the fourth nation with which he has been affiliated.

Crossing national boundaries is, of course, quite common in pro sports and one should not forget that Todd Martin was also in the Serbian camp for this tie in his capacity as coach to Novak Djokovic. Historically there have been many instances, not least Bill Tilden's role as advisor to the German Davis Cup team in the late 1930's -- a story told in fascinating detail by Marshall Jon Fisher in his remarkable book "A Terrible Splendor."

But even that might turn out to be less contentious than the position in which Pilic now finds himself. It is, after all, less than two decades since Serbia and Croatia were at war. But if this is an instance of sports ability to pour balm onto old wounds then who better to apply it than Nikki Pilic -- a man for all nations.