France and Belgium announced their nominations for the Davis Cup final Tuesday morning.
And, for different reasons, there weren’t many surprises.
In fact, they’re the same lineups both squads used in their victorious semifinal ties in September.
For the visiting Belgium squad, which doesn’t have the depth its nearest neighbour does, it’s a matter of all hands on deck and hoping everyone is healthy enough to play.
In the case of undisputed No. 1 David Goffin, it’s “hope that knee holds up through the ATP Tour Finals this week”.
For the French, the attrition of the 2017 season has left captain Yannick Noah with fewer options than he may have had under ideal circumstances. But … he’s bringing six players to Lille, and he’ll decide on the final lineup closer to the tie.
Since this final may well represent France’s final shot at the elusive silver chalice for awhile, as a great generation is limping towards its golden years, Noah also hopes the bodies hold up.
The most secure pick for Noah is the doubles team of Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut, who also are the No. 6 seeds at the ATP Tour Finals this week and and came back from the brink to upset No. 3 seeds Jean-Julien Roger and Horia Tecau in their round-robin opener on Sunday.
Unlike most doubles picks, the two also are good singles players as well.
Time for Pouille to shine
For the singles, Noah finds himself with a Gaël Monfils whose season is done because of injury. And he also has a Gilles Simon whose ranking is in freefall. Since Lyon, a small tuneup event just before the French Open in May, Simon has won back-to-back matches just once, in Shanghai last month.
(As it happens, the second of those wins was against Goffin, and on a hard court at that).
Noah has gone with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who defeated both Dusan Lajovic and Laslo Djere in the semis against Serbia. The other pick is Lucas Pouille, who lost to Lajovic. That tie, in the same Stade Pierre-Mauroy in Lille, was on red clay.
After a poor summer in North America, Tsonga played very well indoors until an unexpected early loss to countryman Julien Benneteau in Paris.
As for Pouille, he’s had an up-and-down season with some very good weeks and some head-scratching early losses.
Both players, however, remain in the top 20. And Pouille played Goffin three times in 2016, and won all three matches. Tsonga is 4-2 against Goffin.
The alternates for France are Benneteau and Richard Gasquet, which is a fine bench and given Benneteau’s amazing run in Paris just a week ago, it wouldn’t be crazy to see him on the final roster.
The French, denied so many times despite having one of the deepest rosters over the last decade, are looking for their first Davis Cup title since 2001.
They won that one over Australia, beating Belgium in the semifinals.
For Belgian captain Johan Van Herck, it all goes through Goffin, who must reverse the trend against both French opponents and win both his singles rubbers.
His second singles player, Steve Darcis, pulled off a nice win against Australia’s Jordan Thompson to seal Belgium’s semifinal win.
Darcis has never faced Pouille.
His only match against Tsonga came back in 2002, when both were teenagers on the Futures circuit. And it ended in an early injury retirement by Darcis.
And when Darcis takes the court, he won’t have played a match since the home Antwerp event in mid-October.
The other two Belgian players, Ruben Bemelmans and Arthur de Greef, would be the underdog doubles pairing.
Alternate Joris De Loore is ranked No. 279 in singles and No. 344 in doubles and had surgery in mid-September, injuring his knee the week before the semifinal against Australia. He and Bemelmans pulled off impressive doubles wins against both Germany and Brazil and if he appears healthy, de Loore may well substitute for de Greef.
A surprise finalist in 2015, Belgium has never won the Cup.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
You want drama? The French Tennis Federation usually will oblige.
Unlike in North America, tennis is a huge sport in France. This is the federation that live-streamed a formal debate between the three main candidates for its presidency last February. The most entrenched old-guard candidate, Bernard Giudicelli, won the job.
The latest drama is the Fed Cup team, a dysfunctional mess at the moment. And it feels as though three team mainstays are ganging up on their quiet, introverted teammate.
It all began back in February when France’s then-top player, Caroline Garcia, skipped a first-round Fed Cup tie against Switzerland (France lost 3-2). She had already stated after the loss in the final last fall that she wouldn’t play in 2017, choosing to focus on producing better results at the Grand Slam tournaments.
After the loss, the outspoken Kristina Mladenovic (with whom Garcia won the French Open women’s doubles title last year) had her say.
“The adventure is more beautiful with real people, people who have values, people who are ready to die on the court and to not be selfish,” Mladenovic said.
Later, she claimed she wasn’t referring to Garcia but to a younger player who expressed an abject lack of interest in playing for France (at least while the team was a tight-knit family under former captain Amélie Mauresmo): 20-year-old Océane Dodin. Uh-huh …
That successful doubles partnership quickly was history.
After defeat, comes bureaucracy
It gets complicated and rather bureaucratic after that. The men of French tennis are bouncing la balle to each other, deciding what the women should do.
We harken back to a time not so long ago when former No. 1 Mauresmo was the captain, and her players were eager to give her their all. They knew that whatever went on, she’d have their backs.
On March 14, Guidicelli said, the registered letter to Garcia was returned unclaimed.
Let the boys handle it
The new president played middleman to open lines of communication between Garcia’s ubiquitous father/coach Louis-Paul and captain Noah. They spoke by telephone March 14 then a week or so later met in person at the Miami Open. After all the menfolk chatted and patted each other’s backs and got it all straightened out (men are good at this, they tell us), things got soap opera-esque in a hurry.
April 5: Louis-Paul Garcia thanked Giudicelli for creating a “climate of confidence and respect”, and helpfully supplied information about how other Fed Cup teams in other countries operated.
April 8: After France’s Davis Cup squad defeated Great Britain in Rouen, captain Noah told Giudicelli he wanted to select Garcia for the upcoming relegation tie against Spain (which, it should be noted, will be without both Garbiñe Muguruza and Carla Suárez Navarro). Among the reasons stated by Noah were Garcia’s solid performance at a tournament in Monterrey the previous week, the fact that she had entered tournaments following the Fed Cup (namely, Stuttgart the following week), and the fact that they needed her and because the other players wanted her on the team.
At the end of that day, Giudicelli left a voicemail for Louis-Paul Garcia informing him of the decision.
April 9: A voicemail message was left from Louis-Paul Garcia, telling Giudicelli the issue wasn’t whether his daughter wanted to play Fed Cup or not; that was never in question (this came as a surprise to Giudicelli, he said, given Garcia’s statement late in 2016).
The father/coach provided some medical information about Garcia’s back issues and concluded, armed with all the relevant data, that it was up to Giudicelli to decide if it would be useful to select her.
April 10: Giudicelli informed the players he was submitting the list of four nominations to the FFT’s executive committee: Garcia, Mladenovic, Alizé Cornet and Pauline Parmentier.
He added the message was read at 8:39 a.m. by Louis-Paul Garcia, and at 11:27 a.m. by Caroline Garcia.
At 10:11 p.m. that night, Garcia issued a release stating a “painful inflammation of the sciatic nerve” she had been dealing with since last summer’s US Open was forcing her to withdraw from Stuttgart and that she wouldn’t return to action until May. No mention was made of the Fed Cup selection.
Reaction from her teammates was swift, and coordinated.
Despite that release, the federation announced nominations the next morning and still included Garcia. The Fed Cup website still lists her. But she won’t play.
Giudicelli is now playing hardball with Garcia, saying that refusing the nomination will have the federation’s disputes committee ruling on sanctions.
The highhandedness in this case would be amusing if it weren’t so sad. Legislating patriotism is highly overrated. A caveat in this case is that French players receive major financial support from the federation as they make their way up the ranks. It’s fair enough there be some obligations in return.
L’Équipe’s Sophie Dorgan met with Garcia at home in Lyon earlier this week. The story in the newspaper’s Saturday edition reveals a young woman who said the last few months have been the worst of her career. “I’m learning the painful way; that’s not the way I would have wanted it. It’s a hurtful and disappointing period,” she said.
Garcia said she got the impression her teammates think she’s faking the injury, even though the federation physician went to Lyon Wednesday to confirm the sciatic nerve problem.
She’s an easy target. Very much dominated by her father/coach, Garcia’s top-10 talent has always been held back by her emotions and her struggle to handle them.
After the tie against Switzerland, she said what she had to say; the federation knew her intention was not to play this year.
“After that, I read and listened to what’s being said, but I don’t want to get into any controversies. I do my thing,” she said. “They said they understood my decision, that I’d done a lot for the French team, that they respected the fact that I wanted to take some time. They knew I had a back problem.
“Then I read in the press that Noah says ‘there’s no point in forcing a player if she doesn’t want to play.’ There are misunderstandings, obviously. Plenty of them,” she added.
“Others really like to be there and cheer. Me, that’s not really my thing. It’s not that I prefer being the centre of attention but if I don’t play … Team spirit, the group, that can be important but for me, not so much. … It’s more important for me to concentrate on my singles career rather than on Fed Cup, because I don’t play. I’m not the French No. 1 or No. 2, I’m No. 4.”
She has a point, sort of. But we’re getting the sense she won’t lead the next generation of French women’s tennis. Amandine Hesse, who was on the team against Switzerland in February, will fill that spot.
(Information for this piece was gathered from l’Équipe newspaper, Agence-France Presse, Tennis-Actu and other French-language sources. Translation of quotes are my own; if you want to know more, run the hyperlinks through Google Translate to get the gist; search for more stories. Or drop a comment on this piece via Twitter, Facebook or Instagram and I’ll do my best to answer!)