The final weekend of Davis Cup, as we’ve come to know it over 118 years, begins Friday in Lille, France.
And it will be French No. 1 Jérémy Chardy against Croatian No. 2 Borna Coric to kick it off (8 a.m. EST).
They’ll be followed by Marin Cilic, ranked No. 7 in the world, against former world No. 5 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the second singles.
Tsonga is currently ranked No. 259 after missing seven months of the season due to knee surgery.
Few tennis nations have more depth than the French.
They have nine players ranked in the top 100 (Spain currently has 10, the U.S. 11).
But despite a relative embarrassment of riches, there is always drama in the selections.
And as their golden era of French players ages, there always seem to be injury issues that limit the options.
The other X-factor is that even though their home Grand Slam is played on red clay, there are few – if any – among the current crop of French players who can be considered highly accomplished on that surface.
So putting the final on clay is a crapshoot.
Gasquet, Monfils, Simon not chosen
No. 1 Chardy is currently the fifth-ranked player in his own country.
And he’s getting a bucket-list opportunity to become a national hero.
So much so, he even postponed his honeymoon.
The best of them, Richard Gasquet (No. 26, but a former No. 7), bowed out due to injury. Same for the current French No. 2, Gaël Monfils. Monfils is 3-0 against Cilic, and 2-0 against Coric.
As for the French No. 3, Gilles Simon (the top three are separated by only four spots in the rankings), well, that’s … complicated.
“The first is that Gilles has a way of working that’s fairly far from mine. We discussed it, before and after my selection,” he said. “The second is that I think Gilles is much better on a hard court than on clay. I looked at his statistics. He has very good statistics against the Croats, but poor ones in Davis Cup on clay. I put all that together and I made my choice.”
Great record vs. Croats for Simon
Simon is 6-1 against Cilic, although their only clay-court meeting came in 2007. Notably, he took him to five sets twice – winning in Australia in 2014 and losing in five at the US Open that year, which Cilic won. He is 2-0 against Coric.
His record on clay in Davis Cup isn’t great, although most of those matches came five or more years ago. More recently, he defeated Canadian Vasek Pospisil in straight sets during France’s “home” tie in Guadeloupe in 2016.
The hard-court winning percentage is superior to his clay efforts. But not in a decidedly lopsided fashion. He has never played a match on indoor clay.
Noah also benched Lucas Pouille for Friday in favor of Tsonga. Pouille, who has been the highest-ranked French player the last few years, has fallen back after a difficult 2018.
Rusty Tsonga takes on Cilic
The second singles rubber Friday will tell the French most of what they need to know.
Tsonga has played just five matches since returning to action in September after a seven-month absence. He’s been competitive in all of them – they’ve all gone three sets – but he has won just one of them.
That was a victory in a third-set tiebreak over No. 65 Guido Pella of Argentina in Antwerp.
Tsonga’s last five-setter came at the Australian Open in January, where he prevailed over Canadian Denis Shapovalov.
His last match on clay came in Sept. 2017, in the Davis Cup semis against Serbia in the same stadium, on the same surface.
It’s a big ask – a crapshoot – to hope for a throwback miracle from Tsonga. But it’s Davis Cup.
French edge in doubles
The downside of qualifying for the ATP Tour Finals – an making the final, losing a heartbreaker – is that Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert won’t have had much time to adapt to the change of surface.
The positive side is that they’re match-tough and, despite that loss, confident.
They have won five of their six Davis Cup doubles rubbers together. Notably, that one defeat came at the hands of Croatia (Cilic and Ivan Dodig) on a hard court in Croatia during the 2016 semifinal tie.
Croatia doesn’t have the same sort of established doubles team, although they do have Mate Pavic, who is ranked No. 3 in the world and forms the second-ranked pair (behind Americans Jack Sock and Mike Bryan) with Oliver Marach of Austria.
They have Dodig, the 33-year-old former No. 4. And that pair did win a smaller ATP Tour event in Chengdu together in September. Pavic and Dodig won Hamburg together on clay in 2017. They could also substitute in Cilic, as they have done before – notably, as mentioned above, against the French.
There have been some issues with the indoor clay court laid down in 60 hours for this tie.
That’s a short turnaround, and clay courts needs time to settle and cure
To that end, the French Federation had players of various ages do a sort of a tennis marathon on the court overnight Wednesday to Thursday, according to RMC Sport.
They’ll do it again Thursday night.
Director of operations Sébastien Hette played down that service-line bump. “Nothing too nasty,” he told RMC. It’s something pretty classic for a clay court; it wasn’t even brought up at the captains’ meeting.”