With his three top-ranked players out of squad—Richard Gasquet, Gael Monfils and Gilles Simon—Noah nevertheless had the services of world No32 Lucas Pouille and No40 Jeremy Chardy. Yet he chose Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to play on the opening day instead of Pouille.
A surprise, because Tsonga was just 1-4 since knee surgery in April, and ranked 259—and still did not look in peak form during the preparations for this historic final tie.
Sure enough, he was soundly beaten by the formidable world No7, Croat Marin Cilic, in straight sets. So, along with similarly fine efforts from world No12 Borna Coric, Croatia took a 2-0 lead after Day 1.
Happily for this final showdown in Lille between the two top-ranked teams in Davis Cup—and for the thousands who had tickets for the final day of competition—the charismatic French duo of Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert won a superb doubles match to keep France in the hunt for an 11th title.
Then came the less surprising news that Pouille would now get his chance on one of tennis’s biggest stages, though it was at the expense of Chardy and not Tsonga—though of course, the tie had to get to a fifth and final rubber for that to become a factor.
The 24-year-old Pouille had, it is true, had a disappointing season after a strong start. He broke the top 10 in March after reaching three finals in four weeks, highlighted by the title in Montpellier and runner-up places in Marseille and Dubai. He also clinched France’s 3-1 Davis Cup quarter-final win over Italy by beating Andreas Seppi in five sets and Fabio Fognini in four sets.
But he went on to pick up a back injury and then a leg injury, and would lose in the opening round of eight tournaments through the rest of the year. Could he now end his season on a high by keeping his nation’s hopes alive, by helping his nation to victory from a 2-0 deficit for the first time since 1939?
Bearing in mind the form of Cilic, plus the result of their only previous match, a victory to Cilic in the 2016 Davis Cup semi-finals, it was a big ask.
And Cilic was the first to get a chance to break, in the second game, but he slapped a forehand into the net. The pressure was obvious for Pouille, but it was perhaps weighing on the wide shoulders of Cilic too, after his loss from two sets up to Juan Martin del Potro in the final two years ago.
Sure enough, he struggled to find his first serve, and looked vulnerable in the seventh game—first a double fault, then a forehand very wide. However, he fended off the threat, and they edged to 4-4.
Now the Croat worked a superb point, moving into the net, to create another break point, only to see a near-impossible drop-shot winner from Pouille. A love hold by Cilic eventually took it to a tie-break.
There, Pouille threw down an ace to open the deciding game of the set, but a loose forehand from the Frenchman conceded the first mini-break, 1-3. He made up for it with a winning backhand down the line, 3-3, but made no further inroads.
All at once, Cilic pulled off a couple of huge forehands against the Pouille serve, 6-3, and dropped in a short angled backhand for the set, 7-6(3) after almost an hour, and that despite a first-serve percentage of just 41 percent.
Croatia kept up heavy pressure into the second set, with Cilic yet to offer up a break point. Meanwhile, Pouille repeatedly had to face deuce, and come the sixth game, he finally conceded a break as the Cilic forehand pounded through the court, 4-2.
Pouille dug deep to hold off the Croat, fighting off four set points to hold for 3-5 with his best serving of the match. So Cilic had to put aside that missed chance and serve it out himself, and two winning forehands, the best shot on court through the entire match, did the business again, 6-3.
Cilic had a great opportunity to work break point in the third game of the third set, only to make two errors. Would he waver enough to let Pouille back into the match?
The answer was swift: He would not let his grip on the match go this time around. He stayed calm, his serving level rose, and he was fearless in stepping into the court to drive Pouille side-to-side with penetrating drives.
It earned him three match-points against Pouille’s serve at 3-5, and at the third time of asking, Cilic threw up a winning lob to seal victory, 6-3.
Thus he sealed Croatia’s second Davis Cup victory in its short history in the tournament. The first one came in 2005, when Ivan Ljubicic and Mario Ancic almost single-handedly carried Croatia to victory.
Cilic would play his first tie the next year while still a gangly teenager, but he has gone on to play more ties, for more years, and win more matches than any other Croat—including Ljubicic and Ancic.
After perhaps his best year on the main tour, when he reached No3 in the world following his final run at the Australian Open, it seemed only right that he should take centre stage in Lille, in the last Davis Cup final to be played after a year of knock-out victories, and in front of passionately partisan fans.
He summed it up the emotions for himself and his nation:
“This is a weekend from the dreams. I’m extremely proud of the win.”
And went on to dismiss talk of his heart-breaking loss to del Potro in 2016:
“I’m not looking at things like that. This team has done incredibly well throughout the years… It’s a team effort… It’s not every day you become a world champions, and for us, it’s a dream come true for this nation.”
Cilic is now 30, but seems still to be building a more complete game and more self-belief. This victory can only boost his confidence.
As for his young compatriot Coric, it could be just as significant. He has only just turned 22, ended the season at a career-high ranking with a 500 title and a Masters final to his name, and beat six top-10 players along the way. The experience in Lille and throughout his Davis Cup year can only inject still greater confidence in one of the most impressive young players on the tour.
Next year, the Davis Cup Final will feature 18 teams through six round-robin groups before they play shorter knock-out rounds—one weeks on neutral ground. How that will unfold in practice is impossible to say. But it is hard to imagine it will conjure up the magic of this unique nation-on-nation showdown.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge