LILLE, November 23, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
France’s Jeremy Chardy and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga faced an arduous task of having to face a pair of in-form Top 20 stars in Croatia’s Borna Coric and Marin Cilic, during the opening day of the 2018 Davis Cup by BNP Paribas Final in Lille, France.
It didn’t go well for the French.
Despite having a home-court advantage by playing on indoor clay inside the large and loud Stade Pierre Mauroy, filled mostly with partisan and passionate French fans wearing blue and waving their tri-colored flags, every year there’s so much pressure for France to win the Davis Cup.
The 22-year-old Coric put Croatia in the lead by putting on a clinic in beating the overmatched and older Chardy, 6-2, 7-5, 6-4, in the first rubber. He needed just two hours and 19 minutes to win.
“I played a really great match from the beginning to the end,” said Coric after lifting Croatia to a 1-0 lead in the tie. “I was very aggressive, I was very calm and I didn’t lose my nerve in the second set. I had a few break points in the second but didn’t take them, but I stayed calm and that was the key I think. I served really well in the important moments.”
Then, Cilic maintained his cool during a 10-minute medical time-out by Tsonga late in their rubber before he won 6-3, 7-5, 6-4, in two hours and 22 minutes. It gave Croatia a 2-0 lead, needing to win just one of the three remaining rubbers to lift the Davis Cup.
— Davis Cup (@DavisCup) 23. November 2018
“I was hoping the quality from Borna and Marin would prevail and that was the case,” said Croatia’s team captain Zeljko Krajan, in describing the twin successes of Coric and Cilic. “But it was because they were not overawed by the crowd. It was a great day for us.”
Going into Friday first two singles rubbers, French team captain Yannick Noah knew the odds were not favorable for defending champion France. After all, there’s no pressure like a Davis Cup Final – especially when you’re trying to successfully defend the most prestigious team trophy in tennis in front of your home fans.
“We know we’re playing a much better team. Coric and Cilic are much better than us in terms of their results lately and during the whole season,” said Noah. “We know we have to be not only good, we have to be excellent to be with these guys. They’re a strong team.”
No. 40 Chardy entered his singles rubber against No. 12 Coric with just five wins since the summer grass season. Meanwhile, Tsonga’s injury-plagued season – he missed from February to September with a knee injury that required surgery in April – has seen him win just one of six matches since his return at Metz in mid-September.
“Borna is a very good player,” said Chardy, who was undefeated on indoor clay in Davis Cup competition before Friday’s loss. “He’s played really well this year.” Chardy admitted before his rubber that it would be difficult to beat Coric, but “I’ll give everything on the court.”
As it happened, the first game of the Chardy-Coric rubber took 11 minutes to decide, but Coric erased a love-40 deficit to break Chardy’s serve. As for the rest of the first set, it took all of 25 minutes for Coric to show his dominance. He held at love for a quick 2-0 lead with powerful ground strokes. Then, relentlessly, he broke Chardy for a second time – at love – to increase his lead to 3-0 as the unforced errors began to pile up against the French. Another love game for Coric on his serve made it 4-0 as he won 15 consecutive points. Chardy finally got on the board with a hold in the fifth game, but Coric maintained an aggressive posture and painted the lines en route to winning 6-2. He dropped just three points on his serve in the opening set.
The rest of the match, Coric continued his dominance of Chardy by hustling and being aggressive in his returns. He capitalized with a break opportunity in the 11th game to win the 57-minute second set 7-5, then lost just two points in his final two service games to put away the third set 6-4 and win the rubber.
Tsonga, whose ranking has dipped to No. 259, was honest if not complimentary of his Croatian opponents. Before he faced No. 7 Cilic, he said, “I think they’ve played a lot better than us over the year. They did great, they finished Top 10 or close to it so I think we’re the outsiders in this final, but we’re here and we’ll give our best.”
Against Cilic, Tsonga played fearless with nothing to lose, but the Croatian controlled the rubber from the outset. Cilic fired 12 aces, hit 26 winners, and won points on all but five of his first serves. Meanwhile, Tsonga‘s 17 winners were overshadowed by 31 unforced errors.
Now, France is faced with a must-win situation on Saturday in the doubles rubber, down 0-2, as Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert play Mate Pavic and Ivan Dodig. The last time a nation recovered from an 0-2 deficit to win the Davis Cup trophy was Australia in 1939.
It’s a huge task that awaits the French. Tous en bleu is surely being tested.
Davis Cup notes
• Saturday’s doubles rubber starts at 2 p.m. CET (1 p.m. GMT) with Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut of France facing Ivan Dodig and Mate Pavic of Croatia.
• France is bidding to become the sixth nation since the Challenge Round was abolished in 1972 to retain the Davis Cup title. Others countries that have won back-to-back titles since 1972 include: United States (1971-72, 1978-79, 1981-82), Sweden (1984-85, 1997-98), Germany (1988-89), Spain (2008-09) and Czech Republic (2012-13).
• Four of the last five Davis Cup Finals have been won by the away team. Last year, France became the first country to win the title on home soil since 2012 champion Czech Republic beat Spain. Since the Challenge Round was abolished in 1972, there have been 26 Davis Cup Finals won by the home nation while 19 have been won by the away team.
• Several French players were in attendance Friday, including Julien Benneteau and Benoit Paire, cheering for France. Also, the TV cameras caught a glimpse of NBA basketball player Joakim Noah, son of France team captain Yannick Noah, sitting courtside.