Davis Cup 2017: Can Goffin and Darcis lead giant-killer Belgium past France to victory at last?
Belgium are preparing to take on France in the Davis Cup final in Lille as they look to lift the famous trophy
Belgium may be one of the smaller countries in Europe, and it certainly cannot compete with neighbours, Germany, France and the Netherlands when it comes to population.
But this nation has, in recent years, punched above its weight when it comes to Davis Cup—thanks in large part to two players who have also learned to punch above their weight in leading modest Belgium against the heavyweights of this international competition.
Steve Darcis, 33 years old, has played for his nation every year since 2008: 22 nominations, 22 ties played, 22 singles rubbers won. He is 5ft10, 77kgs, and has not reached an ATP final since 2008.
Now ranked 76 in the world, he has won just 20 main-tour matches this season, and four of those were in helping Belgium to reach the finals this weekend in the title tie of the 2017 Davis Cup. That those wins were over the likes of Alexander Zverev and Philipp Kohlschreiber, and his only singles loss was a five-set thriller against the brilliant Nick Kyrgios, explains why Darcis has earned the nickname “Mr Davis Cup”.
Then there is David Goffin, the slight, nimble 26-year-old, all 68kgs of him. He worked his way into the top 10 for the first time this February, a finalist in Rotterdam and Sofia, quarter-finalist at the Australian Open, and the semis and quarters in back-to-back Masters during the spring.
He was ready to make a big impression at Roland Garros where he reached the quarters last year, but suffered a freak accident, twisting his ankle on the covers at the back of the court, and missed the entire grass season. Yet he notched up 4-0 in singles rubbers second run to the final for Belgium in three years, and his last singles loss was in the previous final—to Andy Murray on the way to British victory.
And here was Belgium again on the verge of its own piece of history, with Goffin, Darcis and their teammates hoping to win the Davis Cup for the first time. Already the giant-killers of the year, beating former champions such as Germany, Italy and Australia, they had to take on nine-time champion France and a team packed with talent and choices.
So one could only empathise with the dilemma that David Goffin faced in recent weeks. Before October’s Asian swing, he looked out of the reckoning for the prestigious end-of-year World Tour Finals, but won back-to-back titles in Shenzhen and Tokyo, made the semis in Basel, and edged among the elite eight qualifiers for the first time. What is a player to do?
It was, of course, a no-brainer. He looked weary during the Paris Masters, and had begun to wear support tape on his knee well before he got to London. Did this quietly-spoken Belgian have enough left to survive the rigours of the round-robin phase, let alone the knock-out stage—let alone the Davis Cup final just days later?
He was asked about it many times over, and patiently assured the media, after becoming one of just six players ever to beat Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in the same tournament—via two three-set thrillers—that he was still ready to give his all.
“There is nothing negative in this period. I have to play the final in Davis Cup. I have to play the final here. It is something incredible. The fatigue doesn’t mean anything. I just have to go for every match, every moment on the court, enjoy that moment because, yeah, it’s the biggest final of my career, here and in Davis Cup. I will try to play match after match, give everything on the court like I’m doing for the moment.”
It took him another two and a half hours to get through the final, where he suffered a tear-inducing three-set loss against Grigor Dimitrov, but it also took him to a career-high No7 in the world, and the highest ranked man in the Davis Cup final.
Belgium’s third chance to claim the title comes against their big neighbour, France, and it so happens that Belgium’s first Davis Cup final, in 1904, was at the expense of France, though the Belgians went on to lose to GB in the Challenger final.
But France went on to build a 4-3 lead over its neighbour, the last win coming on the way to the most recent of France’s nine titles. And as usual, the French have been able to draw from a deep well of talent—they have six men in the top 50, 10 in the top 100—and are led by their two top singles men, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, No15, and Lucas Pouille, No18.
In doubles, though, captain Yannick Noah has not gone with the proven class duo of Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert, who won three Masters titles together this year, and have both the Wimbledon and US Open doubles titles to their names, but instead has put Herbert with Richard Gasquet, who won just a single match from two played in doubles this year.
Indeed Herbert, who has never played with Gasquet before, only played with one other man during 2017, who happened to be, in a nice touch of irony, Goffin. Add to the picture that Herbert forced the withdrawal of himself and Mahut from the World Tour Finals with a back injury, and Noah has clearly put a lot of faith in his singles players to get the job done.
Of course, also weighing in on the French side will be home advantage, and the famously vocal French fans—likely to be the vast majority in the huge Stade Pierre Mauroy Lille, where the biggest indoor tennis audience ever, over 27,000, saw the home side lose to Switzerland in the 2014 final.
But make no mistake: Belgium will throw heart and soul into this. Darcis said after beating Australia to make this final:
“I think it is the final we all dreamed about. Speaking about it a few weeks ago, we said, it would be so good if we could play you guys—but hopefully this one we can take.”
The tie opens between great friends Goffin and Pouille. The Belgian may never have beaten the Frenchman before, but then until last week, he had never beaten either Nadal or Federer—and he did the double in the space of days. In tennis, there are no guarantees—as this year’s final has already proved.
Belgium vs France: quick hits
• Teams are meeting for the eighth time, France lead 4-3
• Last meeting: SF 2001 in Ghent—France won and went on to win title
• First meeting: 1904, in London—Belgium won but went on to lose title match vs GB
• This is their first meeting on a hard court, but France leads 2-1 indoors
• France have been champions nine times (last in 2001), and are playing in 18th final
• Belgium has been runner-up twice, in 1904 and 2015—thus playing in the final for second time in three years
• France won seven of its last eight home ties
• Belgium is playing away for just the second time since 2014
• However, the last four finals have all been won by the away team
• France is one of eight nations to hold No1 ranking: currently No2
• Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is the most successful active French player with 26 total wins and 20 singles wins
• Goffin has won 15 of last 16 singles rubbers, 19-3 in singles overall, but has lost all three doubles rubbers
France (2) vs Belgium (4): France leads 4-3
Venue: Stade Pierre Mauroy, Lille; hard indoor
Friday, 24 November, 2pm local time
R1 Lucas Pouille vs David Goffin
R2 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs Steve Darcis
Saturday, 25 November, 2pm local time
R3 Pierre-Hugues Herbert & Richard Gasquet vs Ruben Bemelmans & Joris le Loore
Sunday 26 November, 1.30pm local time
R4 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs David Goffin
R5 Lucas Pouille vs Steve Darcis