The home nation first played in 1904, and had won 10 times before. They also boasted nine top-100 players, including a clutch of former top-10s.
But when they took on Croatia, champions in 2005 but relative newcomers—1993—on the Davis Cup stage, there was no doubting they would have a fight on their hands.
There are currently no French in the top 25, although there are two in the top 12 in doubles—former No1 and Major champions, Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert.
Add into that scenario that France’s top three singles players, Richard Gasquet, Gael Monfils and Gilles Simon, were missing, and that there were also some injury concerns over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and Croatia could certainly be optimistic about their chances.
For in ranking terms, No7 Marin Cilic and No12 Borna Coric outstripped France’s No32 Lucas Pouille and No40 Jeremy Chardy. All the more surprising, then, that captain Yannick Noah opted to play Tsonga, who was just 1-4 since knee surgery in April, rather than Pouille, who had won all three of his singles rubbers this year.
What is more, Cilic and Coric had been in particularly good form this season. The 22-year-old Coric especially had developed great physical and mental maturity, and had got a taste for beating higher-ranked men, the likes of Roger Federer, Kevin Anderson and Juan Martin del Potro.
And like the French, Croatia’s singles players had solid backing from doubles colleagues in the shape of current No4 Mate Pavic and No35 Ivan Dodig.
In head-to-head terms, too, there was nothing to choose between the top two ranked nations, one win apiece. However, Croatia was the only team to have beaten France in captain Noah’s residency, in the 2016 semi-finals. Croatia went 3-2 after Cilic won three rubbers to seal the tie.
All that 2018 form translated into very strong performances by both Cilic and Coric on Day 1: They did not drop a set against Tsonga and Chardy.
Which meant the French now had to do something very special to get their hands on the trophy in this last playing of the tournament in its traditional format. Only once before in more than a century of the tournament’s history had a team come back from a 2-0 deficit in a final—Australia in 1939.
As is so often the case, then, the doubles players held their nation’s prospects in their hands. And in this case, the fans could not have wished for more quality on a court.
In Herbert and Mahut, France had one of tennis’s most popular pairing. They became just the third French team to win their home Grand Slam at Roland Garros in June, and came within a point of winning the Nitto ATP Finals title last week.
But they faced two more Major champions, though Dodig and Pavic had not done so together. Dodig was a former world No4 who won the French Open with Marcelo Melo in 2015 and had 18 Davis Cup wins to his name. Pavic had won five titles this year, including the Australian Open—plus making the French Open final.
So could the French draw on their passionate vocal supporters, and that clay court, to keep the defending champions in the hunt?
The Croats got the first break chance in the fourth game, could not convert, and the charismatic French duo grabbed the momentum. Against the Dodig serve in the seventh game, first Herbert hit a winner up the line, then Mahut did the same on the forehand wing. It left Herbert to race to the net to pick up the acutest volley and break, 4-3.
A superb passage of French play was backed up by a love hold from Mahut, 5-3, and another from Herbert to win France’s first set of the tie, 6-4.
Gradually, though, the Croats got back on track, and the huge returning pressure drew a double fault from Herbert in the eighth game for a break chance. The younger Frenchman impressed again, though, with some huge, kicking serves, despite already having treatment on his right shoulder. It went to 4-4.
The pressure switched to Croatia, and Dodig threw in a wayward game, including two double faults, to give the French a timely break, and they had no trouble serving out the set, 6-4.
The third set cranked up the intensity, especially during the early stages and an immediate break by the French. There was brilliance on both sides—a backhand angled winner from Mahut stood out in the long third game—but the Croats, notably Pavic around the net, defied three break points to stay in contention 1-2.
Mahut was emphatic with some fine serving and a game-sealing smash, to hold for 3-1, but the Croats hit a purple patch to reel off four straight games, two breaks, and leave Pavic to serve for the set. The left-hander dropped only one point to do just that, 6-3.
Both sides had made many more winners than errors, and after two and a half hours were separated by just two points.
The French continued to feel huge pressure, and were forced to play 30 points on serve compared with just 13 for the Croats, to reach 3-3. Yet their resilience and resistance continued, and the stadium reached boiling point as Pavic served to stay in the match, 4-5.
The crowd got their reward, three match points, 0-40, but Pavic turned his ire on the French supporters, riled them, and punched home his anger with three winning serves, and a net winner, 5-5. It was bold stuff, and Dodig did his part to take it to a tie-break.
But France was on the front foot, and opened a quick 3-1 lead. In the blink of an eye, Herbert stepped up to serve for the match, and this time, there was no mistake: 7-6(3).
So it will come down to the final day, with Cilic first taking on Chardy, followed by Coric against Tsonga if required—and if both are able to play. Tsonga did not practise Saturday, though Pouille did, and Coric needed a medical time out in the deciding set of his first match.
It may not come to that: Cilic will, of course, hope to get the job done. And his nation will surely hope that the depth of singles resources on the French bench does not, in the end, become Croatia’s downfall.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge