Stayin’ Alive: France Solid In Doubles Rubber Triumph

Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut (photo: Davis Cup)

LILLE, November 24, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)

Going into the second day of the 2018 Davis Cup by BNP Paribas Final, the last Davis Cup final using the traditional two-nation three-day format, France needed to win Saturday’s doubles rubber in order to keep its dream of winning an 11th Davis Cup title alive.

A nation’s lonely eyes – and another unabashedly noisy crowd inside of Stade Pierre Mauroy – turned to the French duo of Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert, ranked No. 8 in the world, in hopes of bringing some good news to fans of Les Bleus. As they took to the red clay to face Croatia’s Mate Pavic and Ivan Dodig, one wondered if Mahut and Herbert could replicate their 2018 French Open success, when they became only the third French team to win the title at Roland Garros last June, or more recently, when they came oh-so-close to winning the season-ending Nitto ATP Finals last week in London.

Mahut and Herbert were resilient from start to finish – and saved the day for France. They defeated Pavic and Dodig, 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (3), in three hours and 38 minutes of action-packed drama that was filled with plenty of reflexive and handcuffed volleys by both teams.

“We tried to keep the team alive today,” said Mahut, during an on-court interview after his team’s triumph. “I think tonight, we’re going to have the smile at the hotel. But, we still have two more matches to win. We want to win the Davis Cup. I mean, I think our players can do it tomorrow. They had a tough day yesterday. The Croatian players, they played amazing, but tomorrow is another day. With this win, maybe everything could change.”

Coming in, since making his Davis Cup debut in 2015, Mahut, the subject of a double-page feature (“Tribut à Mahut”) in Saturday’s L’Équipe, had lost only two Davis Cup doubles rubbers, while Herbert – he of the wide shoulder turn and wrist-snapping service motion – had won seven of the eight doubles rubbers that he’s competed in. Together, they had gone 5-1 in Davis Cup doubles and 122-48 in all competitions. So, if there’s such a thing as a sure thing in Davis Cup, Mahut and Herbert seemed to be the ones team captain Yannick Noah wanted to have in this situation to rescue the 2018 Davis Cup Final for the French.

“It’s a totally different kind of pressure playing for your teammates, playing for your country” said Paul Annacone, who formerly represented the United States in Davis Cup competition and commentated on the doubles rubber for Tennis Channel, broadcast in the U.S. “I really feel these indoor arenas, where it is so loud, makes it even more complicated and pressure packed.”

Keeping in mind that Croatia’s won six of its last seven away ties – and lost none since the beginning of 2015 – every point, every game became important for the French on Saturday.

On serve through the first six games of the opening set, France broke through, from down 15-40, and converted its first break point with vehemence on a huge back-handed winner at the net by Herbert to go up 4-3. Then, Herbert served out the set with a 205 km/h ace to win the game at love, and the set 6-4 in 42 minutes.

During a 46-minute second set, Herbert hit a forehand winner to fight off a break-point in the eighth game, then was successful with an overhand smash to hold for 4-all. In the next game, Dodig double-faulted twice and France broke to push ahead 5-4. With the set riding on Mahut’s racquet, Dodig fought off one set point for Croatia with a cross-court winner, but netted a 40-30 backhand return. Suddenly, the partisan French crowd inside Stade Pierre Mauroy rose to its feet and came alive as France took a commanding two-sets-to-none lead.

Immediately, France broke Croatia in the opening game of the third set when, after a dazzling back-and-forth exchange, the left-handed Pavic hit a forehand standing in the deuce-court out. It prompted Noah to jump out of his seat and lead the French cheers with a double-fisted, pumping up-and-down of his arms as his team returned to their bench during the change over. However, Croatia got the break back when Herbert’s unforced error on a fore-handed return made it 3-all. The Croatians broke again for a 5-3 advantage on a back-handed forced error return by Mahut in a game that lasted more than eight minutes. Pavic finished off the 58-minute set on his serve as Croatia won five games in a row, and the set 6-3. Suddenly, it was game on.

As the fourth set commenced – and the games began to get longer – it took 10 minutes and 18 points for France to hold in the opening game. The two teams remained on serve through the first seven games, with each looking for the slightest edge against their opponent. Herbert’s forehand winner gave the French a 5-4 advantage, needing just one more game to secure the rubber. However, Croatia saved three match points on Pavic’s serve while fighting off the noise of the rocking crowd, then held for 5-all. France held, again, and so did Croatia to force a tie-break.

In the tie-break, the French jumped ahead 4-1 with the finish line in sight, but Pavic and Dodig weren’t finished. They narrowed the margin to 4-3. However, Mahut and Herbert rebounded to seize the final three points of the tie-break, winning the 71-minute set 7-6, and the doubles rubber three sets to one. They outpointed Pavic and Dodig, 143-139, and hit more winners, 54 to 44.

Mahut and Herbert embraced on their side of the net after match point was secured. With the victory, it gave the French its first point in the tie and narrowed Croatia’s lead in the best-of-5 tie to 2-1.

“It was a goal of ours to win the match,” said Herbert, with Mahut standing next to him during the on-court interview. “We did it well, we fought. We knew we had a hard team to beat, against us, on the other side of the net. We wanted to keep the finals alive, to have a chance on Sunday. We’re still alive.”

With so much to be excited about, it meant there will be meaningful tennis on Sunday. Although Croatia needs just one more win to lift the Davis Cup trophy – and it will send out Marin Cilic, who has 28 career Davis Cup singles wins, and was solid in his victory against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Friday – the bottom line for France is clear: It needs to sweep the reverse singles. With Lucas Pouille in reserve for the French to replace either Jeremy Chardy or Tsonga, it begs the question: Does Noah decide his Sunday line-up with his head or with his heart? Stay tuned.

Davis Cup notes

François Jauffret received the Davis Cup Award of Excellence, presented jointly by the ITF and the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Jauffret was an integral member of France’s Davis Cup team for more than three decades, between 1964 and 1983. He competed in 35 ties for France, a French record for most ties. He joins Yannick Noah, Henri Leconte, Guy Forget and Pierre Darmon as other French recipients of the award. The Davis Cup Award of Excellence is presented annually to an individual from the home team “who has made a lasting impact on that nation’s Davis Cup history and who represents the ideals and spirit of the Davis Cup competition.”

* Looking back on Friday’s Day 1 rubbers, there were six sets played and six sets won by Croatia’s Borna Coric and Marin Cilic. Neither had their service broken. Coric faced only two break points against Jeremy Chardy, none after the second set, and Cilic saved all five break points he faced against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

• Croatia is bidding to extend its seven-tie winning streak on clay. It has not lost a tie played on clay since losing to Great Britain in the 2013 World Group playoffs in Umag.