LILLE, November 25, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert were resilient from first ball to last ball on Saturday. The French duo saved the day for France by winning their doubles rubber against Croatia in the 2018 Davis Cup by BNP Paribas Final, in front of 22,910 mostly-partisan tri-color-wearing fans who packed Stade Pierre Mauroy in Lille.
Mahut and Herbert fired 41 forehand winners and saved seven of nine break points to move across the finish line. Their three hour and 38 minute victory over Mate Pavic and Ivan Dodig, 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (3), improved their record to 6-1 as a Davis Cup team.
“They played great together as a team,” said French team captain Yannick Noah afterward, during an interview with “The Tennis Podcast.” “Pierre played some really great tennis and Nicolas was solid. There was a lot of pressure and tension. They did great the first two-and-a-half sets, had a little letdown, and it got to our heads. Then, they played a perfect tie-break.”
The French triumph in doubles on indoor red clay, which narrowed Croatia’s lead over France to 2-1 after the second day, ensured there would be meaningful tennis on Sunday. It also meant one more opportunity for everyone – including Noah – to be moved to tears during the playing of “La Marseillaise.”
Now, with Croatian team captain Zeljko Krajan ready to send out his pair of World Top 20 stars, No. 7 Marin Cilic and (if needed) No. 12 Borna Coric, whose near-perfect performances lifted Croatia to two big wins on Friday, the question everyone in the tennis world is asking is: Will Noah think with his head or with his heart in deciding his final nominations for today’s reverse singles rubbers?
“I’m worried all the time, but the whole thing is to pretend that I’m not worried,” Noah admitted.
With France’s highest-ranked player, No. 32 Lucas Pouille, riding the bench on Friday following a week of bad practices – relegated to a role of cheerleader – Noah was forced to go with No. 40 Jeremy Chardy at No. 1 singles, while No. 259 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who missed much of the 2018 season due to injury, was inserted at No. 2. In hindsight, it turned into an afternoon full of misery for the French – not to mention two lackluster efforts – that resulted in a pair of straight-set defeats.
Looking back on those first-day rubbers, there were six sets played and six sets won by Coric and Cilic. Neither of them had their service broken. Coric faced only two break points against Chardy, none after the second set, and Cilic saved all five break points he faced against Tsonga.
“Coric and Cilic were so good; we were never close,” said Noah.
During his team’s press conference Saturday, Krajan said, “After what happened (Friday) of course we are confident. Marin and Borna are going to be ready. Hopefully, quality will prevail in the end.”
If France is going to have any chance of winning its 11th Davis Cup title – and keep Croatia from lifting its second Davis Cup trophy – not only do the French have to run the table and win both reverse singles rubbers, but Noah needs to come up with the right lineup to build upon Saturday’s momentum generated by Mahut and Herbert. Because the fourth rubber is an immediate “must-win” for France, it would seem that inserting Pouille for Chardy would make sense for a couple of reasons: First, Pouille has won all three singles rubbers he has played in during this year’s Davis Cup, and second, he won the decisive fifth rubber in the 2017 Final against Belgium – albeit on a hard court. So, he’s used to winning under pressure. Plus, Chardy, 31, was ineffective against the agile Coric, nine years his junior.
Noah has until one hour before the 1 p.m. CET (Noon GMT) start time Sunday to change his original nomination of Chardy for the third singles rubber, and if he’s going to replace Tsonga, his original nomination for the fourth singles rubber, it would have to be no later than 10 minutes after the completion of the third singles match. Decisions, decisions.
If France is going to become the second team in Davis Cup history to recover from down 0-2 in a final – and the first since Australia beat the United States 3-2 to accomplish the feat in 1939 – it’s going to take all the right moves.
Noah summed up his feelings and that of an entire nation. He said, “We need to stay close, do what we have to do. It’s going to be crazy Sunday.”
Davis Cup notes
• Today’s schedule begins with the third singles rubber between Jeremy Chardy of France and Marin Cilic of Croatia, 1 p.m. CET (Noon GMT), followed by the fourth singles rubber (if necessary) between Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France and Borna Coric of Croatia.
Cilic leads Chardy 3-2 in their head-to-head (1-1 on clay), while Tsonga won his only meeting against Coric three years ago on a hard court surface at the Masters 1000 Rogers Cup in Canada.
• According to the ITF Davis Cup Regulations for the Davis Cup Final: “With respect to the third day, if the third singles match is at least three full sets in duration and decides the outcome of the Tie, the fourth singles match will not be played. If the third singles match decides the outcome of the Tie but is less than three full sets in duration, the fourth singles match must be played as scheduled (to the best of three tie-break sets). All decision relating to the implementation of this Regulation shall be the responsibility of the Referee.”
• France has won nine of its last 10 ties with its only loss coming in the 2016 World Group semifinals against Croatia at Zadar, 3-2.
• The French have won six of their last seven clay court ties. Their only setback occurred when they lost the 2014 Final to Switzerland, 3-1, in Lille.
• Of the 106 Davis Cup Finals contested in the history of the competition, this is the 37th Davis Cup Final played indoors and the 27th on clay.