You want drama?
French tennis will always oblige.
It seems the country’s celebrated tennis landscape has rarely been more dysfunctional. And yet, France’s Davis Cup squad has earned its best and perhaps final legitimate chance going forward to raise the Davis Cup.
Despite producing generation after generation of talent, France last won the Davis Cup in 2001. It last won it on home soil in … 1931.
But this year, it will have a chance to do it at home, against the plucky but undermanned Belgium in late November.
The French squad defeated a depleted Serbian team 3-1 in Lille, France over the weekend to earn its spot.
It began slowly, as No. 2 Lucas Pouille went down to Dusan Lajovic in four sets to open the tie on Friday.
“I have a lot to do with Lucas’s loss. At a certain point, we weren’t really communication any more. I felt, in the end, I was hurting him. That’s not a good feeling,” Noah told l’Équipe afterwards. “I have a lot influence on this group, and when I get it wrong, everyone gets it wrong. So much talk about how difficult the match was going to be; I may have soaked too much of that in. I passed on my stress to Lucas.”
But Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (in his first Davis Cup appearance in 14 months) didn’t drop a set against Laslo Djere. (Noah said he spent most of the first two sets not saying a word, just thinking). The doubles team of Nicholas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert won in straight sets,. And then Tsonga came back to win in four against Lajovic to clinch it.
Just 70 miles down the road in Brussels, Belgium, the team of underdogs led by David Goffin was advancing to its second Davis Cup final in three years.
— Davis Cup (@DavisCup) September 17, 2017
Veteran Darcis the difference
Goffin did his job; he won his singles matches against Jordan Thompson Friday and Nick Kyrgios Sunday in four sets. But it was Steve Darcis, a 33-year-old who reached a career high in singles (No. 38) this past May but has dealt with hamstring and lower back issues the last few months, who was the difference.
Darcis didn’t win on Friday. But he pushed Kyrgios to five sets. And given the top Aussie isn’t in the best of health, no doubt it had an effect on the fifth and deciding rubber Sunday.
Kyrgios took on Goffin – and lost in four. Darcis then took care of Thompson to clinch the tie.
So much goes into making a Davis Cup final these days. And the result is that the best, deepest tennis nation isn’t winning all that often.
You wouldn’t think a one-man team like Belgium could do it twice in three years. But with so many top players taking a pass, if the draw breaks right, an upstart team can take advantage.
Even France, a loaded team, defeated Japan (no Nishikori), Great Britain (no Andy Murray) and Serbia (no Novak Djokovic, Janko Tipsarevic or Viktor Troicki) to reach the final this year.
France generally has all its top players available – and a deep pool to choose from. But it’s been a tough go despite the fact that the current generation – Tsonga, Gaël Monfils, Gilles Simon and Richard Gasquet – all have been in the top 10.
France last reached the Davis Cup final in 2014. But that happened to be the year Switzerland had both Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka on board – at the same time – to try to add the silver chalice to their resumés.
Monfils defeated Federer in straight sets on the first day, which game them hope. But they lost the key doubles rubber. And then Federer clinched it on Sunday against Gasquet.
The 2010 final, played in Belgrade with the Serbs featuring full-form Djokovic, Tipsarevic and Troicki, was a drama all to itself.
As both squads decided who to suit up for the fifth and deciding rubber, captain Guy Forget got played a little. They were all certain Serbia would bring back Tipsarevic. Instead, they got Troicki (who had disappeared off the bench to go warm up seemingly without France’s knowledge, while Serbia was well aware that Gilles Simon remained on the French bench).
Forget was debating whether to put out Simon (who was 4-0 against Troicki) or Michaël Llodra. He chose fellow lefty serve-volleyer Llodra, who got trounced. And there were French tears all around.
Will this be the time they finally do it?
Internal drama starts at top
A long-awaited title this year might be even more sweet to the players, since French tennis is an internal hot mess right now.
By tennis standards, the infighting might even be at West Wing level.
It all seemed to go downhill after a quarterfinal loss to Great Britain in 2015.
Captain Arnaud Clément, who played with many of the current veteran crop, was summarily sacked. And the imposition of rock star captain Yannick Noah (it appeared Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was the strongest voice in his favor) did nothing for team unity.
Rather removed from the day-to-day tennis scene in France, and the instigator of an inconvenient, expensive relocation to Guadeloupe for the first round against Canada a year ago, Noah has come under criticism for being a negligible source of support to the players except for the week they come under his tutelage.
His relationship with Monfils reportedly is fairly non-existent. His relationship with Tsonga, once thought to be solid, wavered when Noah called him out during the quarterfinal tie in Rouen back in April.
As for this semifinal against Serbia, L’Équipe reported the players feel Noah didn’t prepare. They never even saw him at the US Open just weeks ago; Noah’s only involvement was two phone calls to his assistant captain.
To be so out of the loop on the players’ current forms and states of mind so close to the crucial tie didn’t go over well. He would also have no first-hand assessment of the players who might dress for Serbie.
And, L’Équipe writes, that may well have shown in the Pouille defeat. The future of French tennis preferred to listen to his own coach’s tactical advice rather than that of Noah.
“We felt he was stressed, negative,” Nicolas Mahut told the media.
Pouille the “GOAT”, then the goat
When he was first elected president, Giudicelli often lauded Pouille for his grit. He even invented a new verb, “to Pouille“, which meant, “Facing and conquering one’s fear to impose one’s game, while drawing energy from the public’s support.”
But when the 23-year-old lost in the third round of the French Open and said that the inability to handle his nerves had led to cramping, Giudicelli turned on both Pouille and his coach.
He said in a radio interview that Pouille’s fitness wasn’t up to snuff and what the French (male) players were missing was “la grinta“, an Italian word that encompasses daring, determination, purpose, resolve and everything in between.
Giudicelli said he couldn’t revolutionize French tennis after just 108 days in office. And in the first French Open under his leadership, no French male player reached the quarterfinals. Overall, it was the poorest showing since 2000. Hence the attack on his players’ grit.
But on the women’s side (so often ignored by French Federation suits unless it suits them), two made the singles quarterfinals. That, of course, was due to Giucidelli’s leadership and involvement leading to their increased motivation – despite only being in office 108 days.
Noah and Giudicelli
As this tie against Serbia neared, Noah admitted there were tensions between the federation and his players and he sided with his players; the message was relayed to Giudicelli that he wouldn’t tolerate the president’s comments “polluting” the players.
There was some backstory to that, too. Noah’s lifelong friend Gilles Moretton (a former French player) was suing Giudicelli for defamation, after Giudicelli refused Moretton’s candidacy for president of a French league because, he said, Moretton had been one of those involved in the 2011 ticket reselling scheme that eventually doomed Giudicelli’s predecessor, Jean Gachassin.
(Giudicelli, a high-level French Federation official, had previously been accused of putting the cone of silence on Gachassin’s alleged involvement, perhaps in the hope that it would help his presidential campaign. That accusation is contained in a report on the scandal by a government body called “The Inspector General for Youth and Sports”. Gachassin is accused of selling some 250-700 French Open tickets – for years – at cost to a travel agent friend who then resold them at up to five times their face value. The tribunal’s decision on this case was postponed, and due to be announced on Tuesday).
His lawyer, speaking in his defense, said Giudicelli was responsible for ending the scam.
L’Équipe chronicled an awkward moment Thursday when Giudicelli tried to say hello to Lucas Pouille three separate times, only to be dissed and dismissed.
“Hello, Lucas,” the president said to Pouille – on three occasions.
Giudicelli pushed it even further. “So, we don’t say ‘Hello’ any more, Lucas?”
Pouille, who had been talking to someone else, turned around. “Sure, we say hello. And goodbye.”
Belgians go quietly along
Among the many things Noah said over the weekend was that he fully expected France to have to travel to Australia for the final. That would have been a rematch of the 2001 final, that was won by the French in Melbourne. And so, full circle.
Van Herck: "Noah a dit hier qu'il allait sûrement aller en Australie j'espère qu'il n'est pas fâché de jouer en France." #noah daviscup
— Amortie et Lob (@Amortieetlob) September 17, 2017
That, of course, surely sat well with the Belgians, who spoiled that particular party.
WE DID IT!!! FINALE!!! So proud to be part of this dream team 🇧🇪❤️ THANK YOU all from the bottom of my heart for your big support 👊🏻🇧🇪🎉 pic.twitter.com/HYW12gbypX
— David Goffin (@David__Goffin) September 17, 2017
As it happens, the last time France played Belgium in Davis Cup was in the first round of that 2001 championship year. France shut them out 5-0.
Où, la finale?
The question now, of course, is where France will host the tie.
The stadium in Lille is huge. And the crowds are nuts. But it’s barely 20 miles from the Belgian border. You’d have to count on a huge Belgian presence to support their underdog team in the big upset.
There’s a bigger problem. The French rugby team has already booked the stadium to play a friendly against Japan on Nov. 25, the Saturday of the tie.
How about Bercy, which will be the site of the Paris Masters event just a few weeks before? According to BFM.TV, the rap group IAM are booked there that weekend.
BFM.TV says the French federation has already been in contact with the brand new U Arena in Nanterre, in the French suburbs – finally completed after the usual French bureaucratic delays and set to open next month with three concerts by the Rolling Stones.
Wherever it is, there’s a great dynamic brewing between France’s Goliath and Belgium’s David – literally.
For all the news about this weekend’s Davis Cup ties (and more great pics like the one above, go to their website.