Since the first playing of the event in 1900, between just two nations—the USA and GB—only four have reached double figures in victories, all of them early recruits to the tournament, but it was only last year that France joined that double-digit club after winning for the first time in 16 years.
This weekend, it was aiming for a 19th final and, looking one match further, aiming to move ahead of GB: Both entered the 2018 event in third place, with 10 titles apiece.
Always one of the strongest tennis nations in the world, once again France was spoiled for choice when putting together a squad. With 10 men in the top 70 or so, five of them former top-10 players, four of them titlists this season, two more finalists, the first choice was Lucas Pouille, who won three titles on different surfaces last year, plus one title from three finals this year.
Next in line was a less obvious pick: Benoit Paire, a player of flair, variety and a big serve, has often been injured, often unpredictable, and at the age of 29, he had not played a Davis Cup tie before. But he had been producing some good tennis this year, and proved to be an astute choice by captain Yannick Noah.
France played another of the biggest nations in Davis Cup, Spain, and although Rafael Nadal pulled out with a knee injury sustained during the US Open, the Spanish squad, selected from the remaining eight in the top 100, was impressive: No21 Pablo Carreno Busta, No26 Roberto Bautista Agut, No55 Albert Ramos-Vinolas and No74 Feliciano Lopez, who also happened to be a Major doubles champion. Along with fellow doubles expert, Marcel Granollers, every man had been ranked in the singles top 20.
But France had a trump card: an even better doubles line-up.
So after Les Bleus did their singles stuff in memorable style—Paire more than rose to his debut in a straight sets dismissal of Carreno Busta, while Pouille battled to a five-set win over Bautista Agut—the spotlight turned on two of the home nation’s favourite players.
Born just a month apart, both heading towards their 37th birthdays at the end of the year, Nicolas Mahut and Julien Benneteau each had Major doubles titles their names with different partners, but also had doubles titles together in their resume.
But what gave this rubber added emotional charge was the knowledge that Benneteau had played his last main-tour match just last week at the US Open: Following his Davis Cup call-up, he would retire from tennis to take on the captaincy of the Fed Cup team.
And while Benneteau may go down in many record books as the man who notched up 10 finals without winning a singles title, his achievements in doubles have certainly compensated along the way. Only last year in Davis Cup, he joined with Mahut to beat Jamie Murray and Dom Inglot on France’s way to victory.
Here, they would take on a Spanish duo with a combined age of 68. Lopez, 36, was also a Major doubles champion, while his partner Granollers, 32, had won 15 doubles titles from 34 finals, though not with this Lopez—instead, with Marc Lopez.
Perhaps it was that lack of experience together that told in this lively third rubber, but the French were on a mission. In a dazzling first set, they raced to 6-0 in under 20 minutes, 24 points to four, just two unforced errors.
They looked the dominant pair in the second set, too, though the score was more evenly matched. The French broke just once to ensure the set, 6-4.
But then the pace picked up for a thrilling conclusion. The level of serving on both sides was impressive, with only five points dropped on the French side, just 10 on the Spanish side, and only one exchange of breaks. The Spanish actually led following their strong start, 4-1, but Granollers was then broken, and it went to a tie-break. At the third time of asking, the Benneteau and Mahut pairing sealed the rubber, tie and a place in the final, 7-6(7).
There was some saving of face in the dead fourth and fifth rubbers as Ramos-Vinolas beat Gasquet 14-12 in the champions’ tiebreak, and Granollers beat Mahut 13-11 in their decider. But it was an irrelevance: France will contest the last ever final in this Davis Cup format in November, but would have to wait a good while to find out if they would get the home advantage they enjoyed last year.
If Croatia beat the USA, France could choose the final venue—and who would bet against it being back in Lille, where they celebrated not just this tie but last year’s victory?
That looked to be the case after the first day of play on the clay of Zadar in Croatia. Borna Coric beat Steve Johnson in three long sets to take the first point, and Marin Cilic also won in three for the second point. And while the doubles rubber was always likely to be a tough contest, few anticipated such a seesawing marathon.
With Jack Sock pulling out with injury from his expected pairing with Mike Bryan—and the duo had won both the Wimbledon and US Open doubles titles—the door opened for Croat doubles experts, Ivan Dodig and Mate Pavic, each of whom had a Major doubles title to their name. They even had a combined doubles title in Hamburg last year.
It would take four and three-quarter hours to separate the teams, after the Croat pair pulled back a two-set deficit to take the rubber to a final-set tie-break. There Bryan, with Ryan Harrison, edged the point, 7-6(5). The tie would go to the final day. Could the USA beat Croatia for the first time after five losses?
The answer looked like a negative in the early goings: Cilic took on a change of opponent, Sam Querrey, and won the first set tie-break, took an early break in the second set, and led 6-1 in the eventual tie-break—only to lose the set, 7-6(6). The change in fortunes continued in the third set, as Querrey broke twice for 6-3, and then in the fourth, despite dropping only five points on serve, Cilic was broken once, but that was enough. The Querrey win forced a deciding fifth rubber.
It was now down to the youngsters, Coric vs Frances Tiafoe, with the 20-year-old American playing in his first Davis Cup tie and searching for his first win. And he took an early break, only to see Coric quickly level again. But he swept the Croat aside to win the opening tie-break, 7-6(0).
All change again, though, as Coric levelled, 6-1 in the second, and took a 5-1 lead in the third with two hours on the clock. Another switch, and Tiafoe levelled and took it to a tie-break, where it was nip and tuck: The American edged the set and the lead, 7-6(11).
Still the tie remained in the balance, with Coric sweeping another 6-1 set, and the super-fit young Croat held firm for two breaks in the fifth, 6-3, after more than four hours.
So Croatia makes the final for the second time in three years. In 2016, they were thwarted by Argentina. This time they face France, who they beat on the way to that 2016 final. The difference is, this time it will in France.
Final: 23-25 November
France play Croatia
Austria beat Australia 3-1
Serbia beat India, 4-0
Japan beat Bosnia/Herzegovina 4-0
Argentina beat Colombia, 4-0
Sweden beat Switzerland 3-2
Czech Republic beat Hungary 3-2
Canada vs Netherlands – in progress
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