AFP - Defending champions Spain shrugged off the absence of Rafael Nadal to close in on a seventh Davis Cup final on Friday, while the Czech Republic and Croatia were locked in a marathon, record-breaking tussle in their semi-final.
Spain were 2-0 ahead of last-four debutants Israel in Murcia with David Ferrer sweeping past Harel Levy 6-1, 6-4, 6-3 before Juan Carlos Ferrero outclassed Dudi Sela 6-4, 6-2, 6-0.
Ferrero had replaced world number two Nadal, who was ordered to rest by doctors after suffering abdominal problems at the US Open, where he was eliminated in the semi-finals.
But Spain were never in trouble on their favoured clay courts against an Israel team who had stunned two-time champions Russia 4-1 in the quarter-finals in July.
Three-time champions Spain have won all three of their previous Davis Cup meetings with Israel, boast an impressive record of 16 straight wins at home and 18 consecutive victories on clay and are well on course for December's title match.
They will reach their seventh final unless Andy Ram and Jonathan Erlich can beat Feliciano Lopez and Tommy Robredo in Saturday's doubles.
In stark contrast to Spain's stroll in the sun, Radek Stepanek needed five hours and 59 minutes to beat Ivo Karlovic and give the Czech Republic a 1-0 lead over Croatia in Porec.
Stepanek defeated Karlovic, who sent down a world record 78 aces, 6-7 (5/7), 7-6 (7/5), 7-6 (7/5), 6-7 (2/7), 16-14 in the opening rubber with neither player dropping serve until the fifth and deciding set.
The second rubber also went the distance with Tomas Berdych beating Marin Cilic 6-3, 6-3, 3-6, 4-6, 6-3 as the Czech Republic, whose last appearance in the final was their title-winning triumph in 1980, moved a step closer to a December showdown with either defending champions Spain or Israel.
Spain were leading their semi-final 2-0 in Murcia.
Although Karlovic hit a record 78 aces and had five match points, he was unable to prevent Stepanek carving out the only break for a 15-14 lead in the last set.
"Everything is known about Karlovic. He really has a phenomenal serve. That is why the only thing I could do was to wait patiently for my chance," said Stepanek, the world number 16.
"Mentally I was very strong and calm and it was decisive in this match."
The match was just one minute short of becoming only the fourth Davis Cup rubber over six hours while the total number of games (82) equalled the highest number in a Davis Cup rubber since the tiebreak was introduced.
It was just three short of the overall record for a World Group tie.
Karlovic's 78 aces broke the the Davis Cup record by 31, and the world record by 23.
"It was really close match, it was long and I had match points," said Karlovic.
Stepanek described what it felt like to face an aces barrage.
"It was like putting you in front of a wall and shooting at you," said the Czech.
Berdych took three hours and 48 minutes to see off US Open quarter-finalist Cilic.
"I started very well and I certainly had my best performance for the (national) team in the first two sets," said world number 18 Berdych.
"I didn't manage to keep the same rhythm in the next two sets, but I came back in the best possible way in the fifth set."
Croatia coach Goran Prpic said that the "atmosphere was like we were playing in Prague."
"Maybe the Czech fans gave the advantage to their team."