One of the best doubles teams on the planet staved off elimination for France in the Davis Cup final Saturday.
And now, captain Yannick Noah must make the toughest decisions of his tenure, in the final tie of his tenure.
Who to play on Sunday, as France tries to defend its title against a Croatian team that boasts two singles players ranked in the top 12 in the world?
The notable depth the French boast is being sorely stretched in this final. As many players as they have, the cupboard even seems almost bare.
And Noah’s selections – which ultimately have come down to his personal preferences – will be second-guessed for the ages if France can’t pull off a comeback in this final “true” Davis Cup final.
Mahut-Herbert get the job done
Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert came within a point of winning the ATP Tour Finals in London a week ago.
And despite the quick transition to the red clay, and a few nervy moments, they kept their nation alive.
The duo defeated the occasional team of Mate Pavic and Ivan Dodig 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (3) to give France its first point.
France remains down 1-2 after Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (against Marin Cilic) and Jérémy Chardy (against Borna Coric) failed to even earn a set on Friday. Actually, they failed to even convert a break point.
Saturday was a bucket-list moment for Mahut, 37 in January. He’s 4-0 in doubles this year after being left off the (then) four-man squad for the final a year ago against Belgium.
The French team was favored going in. And even with a hiccup on the third set, and the failure to capitalize on a golden opportunity at 4-5, 0-40 on Pavic’s serve in the fourth as the crowd began to get involved, they stood firm.
But on Sunday, there remains no margin for error.
Tsonga? Chardy? Pouille? Herbert?
Interviewed on court after the match, Noah said there might be changes. He was going to speak to the team doctor, he said, because Tsonga was “slightly injured” when he played on Friday.
Choosing the 33-year-old for this final, despite his 11-4 career Davis Cup record on clay, was a crapshoot from the get-go.
In last year’s final, Tsonga lost to David Goffin. In the 2016 quarterfinal against the Czech Republic, he lost in five sets to Lukas Rosol after leading two sets to one. But mostly, he was rusty and likely not in tip-top form. Even during the week, there was reporting that he was favoring an injury.
Tsonga hadn’t played a five-set match since beating Canadian teen Denis Shapovalov at the Australian Open in January. And since then, he had been off seven months and had knee surgery. Since his return, he is 1-4 on the ATP Tour.
As well, his last match on clay was during the Davis Cup semifinal against Serbia in Sept. 2017.
As for Chardy, he had a nice run though Indian Wells and Miami. And he had a terrific grass-court season. But other than the grass, he hadn’t gotten past the second round of any tournament since April. He was not coming in with any sort of form after being bounced in the first round in both Basel and Bercy.
Whether or not anyone else could have done better against top-shelf opposition, of course, is an unanswerable question.
Whither Gasquet, Monfils and Simon?
They are the top three French players in the ATP Tour rankings at the moment. Although all of these former top-10 players are outside the top 25.
Gasquet begged off early in the process with an injury.
Extrêmement déçu de devoir annoncer mon forfait pour la finale. À fond avec mes coéquipiers pour aller chercher une nouvelle victoire 🇫🇷🇫🇷💪💪 pic.twitter.com/1ffQcJ0V5p
— Richard Gasquet (@richardgasquet1) November 12, 2018
What about the other two? Well, the best way to term it is probably “captain’s decision”.
Simon, who has been playing club tennis the last few weeks and surely is in shape, just doesn’t seem to be Noah’s kind of guy. That’s been clear from the moment Noah returned to the captaincy early in 2016.
And yet, Simon did play for him in that return tie in Guadeloupe. He also got the call for the first round in 2017 – in Japan. He’s gone to Argentina, and Great Britain, and Germany … and hasn’t played in a home tie since 2012.
Noah’s description of their failure to communicate is that they have “different ways of working.” Simon’s impressive head-to-head results against the top top Croats (albeit not on clay) didn’t score as many points on the selection tote board.
Monfils and Noah: complicated
From the moment Noah returned as captain and decreed that the team would play its first “home” tie all the way in the French territory of Guadeloupe, it was touch and go.
There was no question of Noah leaving Monfils off the squad. His father hails from the island, and he’s a pretty big deal there. So he played. It was the first and last time he played under Noah.
But he didn’t appreciate the lack of input or consultation. The only player who seemed on board with the decision was Tsonga, who was already on that side of the planet and on that surface, playing the South American clay swing.
Tsonga also was the player most on board with Noah returning – so it’s not a shocker that Noah would return that loyalty this weekend.
But Monfils? As Éric Salliot writes for RMC Sport, there were eight French players on hand for the triumph a year ago against Belgium. Monfils was not one of them.
There’s the story of Monfils in Croatia for the 2016 semifinal. Noah was counting on him, but his knee was barking. There was some sort of … conversation and by Wednesday, Monfils was on a plane home rather than in Zadar to cheer on his teammates on the weekend.
Not reliable, Noah says
Previous captains Guy Forget and Arnaud Clément gave Monfils a lot of latitude, Salliot writes. Early morning practices? Forget about it. He wasn’t ready to play on the Friday in the 2014 quarterfinal against Germany. But he brought home the deciding point on Sunday. Noah was convinced he could “manage” Monfils, get him on the team plan, even though he’d been well-warned.
For the first-round match in Japan in 2017, Noah left Monfils out “because it’s much better for the team’s state of mind” that he didn’t play.”
Monfils has rarely disappointed in Davis Cup. He brought home a point in the final both in 2010 in Serbia, and against Roger Federer in Lille in 2014.
And he’s really good on clay.
You’d think Noah would agree he could use him right now.
First up on Sunday is Cilic against Chardy.
On the bench is Lucas Pouille, who is a Noah favorite but who was left on the bench on Friday.
Pouille won both his singles matches against Italy, on clay, back in April. And he beat Robert Bautista Agut on a hard court, in the same Stade Pierre-Mauroy, to give France a 2-0 lead in the semifinal against Spain in September.
He also happens to be ranked higher than Chardy, which is a luxury you have when you put a lower-ranked player in the lineup the first day.
Herbert raised his hand as available in singles. So did Mahut.
But there’s no point in saving Pouille for a fifth and deciding rubber, if you can’t get there. And you also would have the more explosive Tsonga (assuming he’s good to go) up against Coric in that one.
So it comes down to Pouille vs. Chardy against Cilic.
And if Cilic wins, Croatia wins the “final” Davis Cup.
(All screengrabs from DavisCup.com)