WASHINGTON, November 22, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
The Davis Cup by BNP Paribas Final matching defending champion France and 2016 runner-up Croatia wraps up the 2018 tennis season this weekend in Lille. What began 118 years ago, started by four members of the Harvard University tennis team, has transformed into the world’s largest annual international team competition in sports. The competitors this weekend can be forgiven if there’s a feeling of nostalgia because this year’s final is the last of its kind as the Davis Cup will reinvent itself going forward in 2019.
The 2018 Davis Cup Final at cavernous 26,429-seat Stade Pierre Mauroy in this northern France city is the third meeting between the two countries. While the first two ties have gone to the home team, it’s a good bet that France, which has not lost a home tie in its past six, will want to close out the year on a good note with a successful title defense. However, it should be noted that Croatia has not lost away from home since 2015 – and the Croatians won their most recent meeting against the French, 3-2, in the 2016 semifinals. This tie will be played on indoor red clay.
Not since the four famous French musketeers – Jean Borotra, Jacques Brugnon, Henri Cochet and Rene Lacoste – who won six consecutive titles between 1927 and 1932, has France won back-to-back Davis Cup Finals. This year, the French singles lineup will be devoid of any Top 30 players while Croatia will counter with a pair of bonafide Top 20 stars.
So, then, is there a clear-cut favorite? Maybe, maybe not. Earlier this week, Croatia’s top singles player, No. 7 Marin Cilic, spoke out on the subject of favorites, saying it was too close to call. “It’s difficult to say one team is favorite,” he said, quoted by DavisCup.com. “Both teams have their own advantages.”
Indeed, France is a 10-time Davis Cup champion, and if retiring French team captain Yannick Noah can guide his charges to a win without the benefit of the country’s top three-ranked players – No. 26 Richard Gasquet, No. 29 Gaël Monfils and No. 30 Gilles Simon, the first two are injured and Simon was not selected for the tie – he will really be a magician.
To his credit, Noah’s got a solid doubles team in Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert, ranked eighth, that finished runner-up at the Nitto ATP Finals last weekend. Now, if he can score some points from his singles lineup, in which No. 40 Jeremy Chardy (5-1 in previous Davis Cup ties and unbeaten on indoor clay in the Davis Cup) will anchor at No. 1 singles, it will ensure a happy finish for the French squad. Noah’s got the commitment from his players if not necessarily the talent. He is also placing his faith in No. 259 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the most successful active French Davis Cup player with 21 singles wins – but who has been injured much of the season – at No. 2 singles. Surprisingly, No. 32 Lucas Pouille, who helped France clinch its 10th Davis Cup title last year by winning a decisive fifth rubber against Belgium, was not selected for either of the opening-day singles rubbers. However, the highest-ranked French player on the squad still could be inserted into France’s lineup later on.
Meanwhile, Croatia, which was pushed to the limit in holding off the United States in the semifinals, will counter with a solid 1-2 punch from its singles duo of Cilic (27-11 lifetime in Davis Cup) and No. 12 Borna Coric, who has won four of five singles rubbers this year. Both are fit and healthy and ready to go. Team captain Zeljko Krajan will pair No. 4 Mate Pavic and No. 35 Ivan Dodig at doubles and has doubles No. 28 Franko Skugor in reserve.
Cilic is transitioning from playing on an indoor hard court at the ATP Finals last week in London to indoor red clay in Lille. “I believe I’m going to be fine, adjusting my play, a bit more of sliding, running,” he said. “The conditions for indoor clay are slightly faster than outdoor clay. I will be fine.”
Pavic believes France has a team that can play well on any surface. “They adapt well,” he said earlier this week, “but I don’t see clay as a big advantage for them compared to us.”
While it’s too early to predict how the 106th Davis Cup Final will turn out, it’s worth noting that five of the last eight Davis Cup Finals have been decided in the fifth rubber – including the 2016 Final, when Argentina recovered from 1-2 down to defeat Croatia, and last year, when France held off Belgium to win 3-2.
Now, as the 106th Davis Cup Final commences on Friday, it’s time for the tension and drama to unfold. While history – and a familiar home setting – may favor the French, if Cilic and Coric, both poised and ready, can find their best form this weekend, it could prove big for Croatia.
Davis Cup notes
• In a recent interview with the French sports daily L’Equipe, former World No. 1 Mats Wilander, who played on three Swedish Davis Cup champion teams in the 1980s, shared his thoughts about the upcoming changes to the Davis Cup’s format. He said, “I think it is necessary to reform the Davis Cup to make it attractive again, but I am not sure that the decision made are the right ones.”
Further, Wilander said, “The Davis Cup should be home and away from the semifinals as a minimum, I would say even the quarters. Roger Federer doesn’t want to play a first round in Kazakhstan, but a semifinal in Basel, in front of 20,000 Swiss fans? Of course he will. … I bet 50 percent of the Top 100 players remember watching (the) Davis Cup before they watched, maybe not Wimbledon, but certainly before the other Slams or ATP tournaments.”
• Interviewed by Reuters last week in London, where he was competing in the Nitto ATP Finals, France’s Pierre-Hugues Herbert was asked about what playing in this year’s Davis Cup means to him. He said, “The next one will maybe have the same name but will be something new and something we don’t know but we will see what happens. It definitely feels like it’s the last one.
“They are killing the competition that has been here for decades and for us, we see it as the last final.”
• This will be the second final between France and Croatia in a world sporting event in 2018. Four months ago, the French triumphed 4-2 over the Croatians in football’s FIFA World Cup in Moscow.
• Yannick Noah has guided France to three of its 10 Davis Cup titles – in 1991, 1996, and 2017. Win or lose, he will step down after this year’s final and turn over the French captaincy to Hall of Famer Amelie Mauresmo. Noah said he made his decision at the start of the season to retire. “I have to go to another life where there’s less stress. I’m going to go back to my music,” he said. “But though I’m ready to walk away now, I didn’t expect to have so much fun and excitement coming back to a job after a 20-year break.”
• France advanced to the Davis Cup Final with a 3-2 semifinal tie victory over Spain at Lille. The French clinched 3-0 on the second day after winning the doubles rubber. Meanwhile, Croatia went the distance before defeating the United States 3-2 in Zadar to reach the finals.
• Forty-three broadcasters in more than 150 territories will be showing the Davis Cup Final. Viewers in France call follow the action live on France TV, while in Croatia it will be shown on HRT. In Germany, it’s on DAZN and in the United States it will be broadcast by Tennis Channel.
• Next year’s Davis Cup will feature a revamped format, which includes switching from a year-long competition in the elite 16-nation World Group to an 18-nation finals week in Madrid, Spain, scheduled for November 18-24. The finals week will be played on a hard-court surface.
• Team rosters
Team France – Lucas Pouille, Jeremy Chardy, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Nicolas Mahut, Pierre-Hugues Herbert.
Team Croatia – Marin Cilic, Borna Coric, Franko Skugor, Mate Pavic, Ivan Dodig.
• Match schedule
– Friday: Jeremy Chardy vs. Borna Coric, 2 p.m. CET (1 p.m. GMT), followed by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Marin Cilic.
– Saturday: Pierre-Hugues Herbert-Nicolas Mahut vs. Ivan Dodig-Mate Pavic, 2 p.m. CET (1 p.m. GMT)
– Sunday: Jeremy Chardy vs. Marin Cilic, 1 p.m. CET (Noon GMT), followed by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Borna Coric.