Tsonga posts comeback win over Shapovalov

MELBOURNE, Australia – The last 10 minutes of his second-round match against Canadian teenager Denis Shapovalov, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga said, were the reason he fought so hard for the first three hours and 20 minutes.

Down 0-3 in the fifth set, down a break point that, if converted, would have put him down 0-4 and two breaks, the 32-year-old Frenchman hung on and never lost faith.

He came all the way back in a 3-6, 6-3, 1-6, 7-6 (4), 7-5 victory that put him into the third round of the Australian Open.

There, Tsonga will meet Aussie Nick Kyrgios in a clash that has a fireworks alert already registered.

Shapovalov wasn’t just up 3-0. He also was up 5-2, and served for the match at 5-3 in the fifth set. He decided he was quickly going to turn the page and add it to the experience bank.

“As much as the loss hurts, you know, I don’t find it as a loss. I find it as an opportunity to learn. Yeah, I mean, I’m turning it into a positive. Hopefully next time I’m in this situation, I play things a little bit differently,” said Shapovalov, who defeated Tsonga in four sets in the second round of the US Open last September.

“I’m the type of guy when things don’t go my way, instead of sulking or getting mad, down on myself, I go back on the court and try to work twice as hard so next time when I’m in that position I can hit some good serves, you know, just close the match out,” he added.

Experience vs. youth

Shapovalov pointed to Tsonga’s experience as perhaps one factor. “I don’t have that much (experience), that could have been the difference. He picked up his game when he needed to,” he said.

Tsonga, older by 14 years, didn’t necessarily agree. “I think I just played well after that. What I didn’t do most of the match, I didn’t return that well. At the end I returned well. That’s it,” he said.

Shapovalov
Tsonga’s patented spin and leap was impressive after his win over Shapovalov, considering what a gruelling match it was.

The veteran said that most of the time, you don’t think about how young the player across the net is. But in this case, Tsonga tried to use it to pump himself up and play a few Vulcan mind tricks with his brain.

“I said to myself that he’s young, you never know, at the end, when he’ll have to finish, maybe he’ll make a few wrong choices. That was mostly to help me hold on, but that was the only time I thought, he’s 18 years old,” Tsonga said.

The bigger difference-maker was the fact that the first time they met, on Arthur Ashe Stadium last summer, Tsonga had never played Shapovalov before. 

“I knew he was able to do things, crazy things like he did today. I think, yeah, was something great to play him for the second time here,” Tsonga said.

Front tweener a highlight

One key moment came at 5-5 in the fifth set, at 30-all. Tsonga, whose calf had been barking at him (he also said he felt a few mini-cramps in both his forearms as he headed over from the players’ centre to his press conference) got his feet stuck on a ball he thought was going to be a backhand but ended up going to his forehand.

He couldn’t get over in time. And so he hit the ball between his legs. Shapovalov missed the next ball. Eventually, Tsonga broke in that game and served it out at love.

Shapovalov
The match lasted 3 1/2 hours, so it’s not surprising that Shapovalov might have gotten a little peckish.

For Shapovalov, there was certainly hope that he could go further – at least to a clash with Kyrgios.

The Canadian and the Aussie bonded a little as part of “Team World” at the Laver Cup last September.

And the victory over an out-of-sorts Kyrgios at his hometown event in 2016, the Rogers Cup, put the Canadian teenager on the map for the first time.

But it won’t happen. Not this time.

“I thought I could have returned better. There (were) a couple games where I was getting a lot of looks on the second serve and just shanking a couple, not doing enough with the ball. With the second shot, he was stepping up. That’s definitely one area I still want to improve a lot. I think it’s gotten unbelievably better, but there’s always room to grow,” Shapovalov said.

“The other part I would say is my volleys. I think I’m volleying a lot better. Still sometimes I’m not setting on my feet, I’m going for too much. I think it’s just going to the net more, having these chances to play more volleys.”

The kid had his moments, though. Many of them.

Shapovalov is provisionally back in the ATP Tour’s top 50. But there are a lot of players still alive in the draw who could jump past him.

Next up is Davis Cup in Croatia, on an indoor clay court. 

Another new experience.

Mahut, Benneteau left out as DC draw made

Yannick Noah, the captain of Team France, brought six players with him to Lille.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Lucas Pouille were pretty much locks to play the singles. The burning question was, who would he line up in doubles?

That question was answered at the draw Thursday.

And the two oldest members of the team, Nicolas Mahut and Julien Benneteau, will be on the sidelines cheering as Noah selected Richard Gasquet and Pierre-Hugues Herbert for the other two spots on the four-man roster.

For Mahut, it has to be a major blow. Mahut and Herbert were 3-0 this season in Davis Cup, defeating Japan, Great Britain and Serbia with the total loss of only one set.

For Belgium, there wasn’t the same embarrassment of riches.

David Goffin will be expected to win both his singles matches, with Steve Darcis playing No. 2.

The two other Belgian players are Ruben Bemelmans and Joris de Loore.

The Belgians will be counting on David Goffin to post two good singles wins – a big ask after a very long season on the ATP Tour.

The best, most accomplished doubles tandem on the French side is Herbert and Mahut. The pair qualified for the ATP Tour Finals together last week, and Herbert had a lower back issue there that hastened their withdrawal from the event.

Doubles experience lacking

Still, during the three days of practice this week, Mahut and Benneteau were playing doubles together. The logical conclusion was that the two might be the two selected for the crucial doubles rubber on Saturday.

They also have a lot of experience together.

benneteau

But no; Herbert and Gasquet are the selections for doubles (although it’s always possible Noah may make substitutions before Saturday’s rubber).

Gasquet is not exactly a doubles guy. He did reach a ranking of No. 45. But that was nearly 10 years ago. He has two career titles: Metz with Fabrice Santoro in 2006, and Sydney with Tsonga in 2008.

He has played just two doubles matches all season, both with Lucas Pouille.

Herbert has never teamed up with Gasquet, or Tsonga, or Pouille. Which has to mean Noah is confident that it won’t come down to a pickup doubles team.

Or that he has health concerns with Tsonga or Pouille, and wants to have a third top-shelf singles player if he needs one.

Benneteau

The action begins Friday, 9 a.m. EST. Same start time for Saturday’s doubles. The Sunday reverse singles begin at 8:30 a.m. EST.

Davis Cup final nominations announced

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.

 

All on Goffin’s shoulders

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. 

France, Belgium, to battle for Davis Cup

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.

Click above to read about how the French federation has already secured a venue for the final.

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.

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.

Snakebitten French

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.

Belgium
Monfils and Tsonga aren’t getting any younger – or healthier. So the window to win a Davis Cup has shrunk to a mere sliver of time in 2017.

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.

Belgium
Giudicelli, who never played tennis competitively, has taken his mandate as president to mean he needs to practice “tough love” on the French players to whip them into shape. Or something.

(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.

OMG, awkward!

 

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.

No answer.

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.”

Ouch. 

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.

That, of course, surely sat well with the Belgians, who spoiled that particular party.

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.

BelgiumFor all the news about this weekend’s Davis Cup ties (and more great pics like the one above, go to their website.