LILLE, November 25, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
Yannick Noah made his decision. The French team captain went with his head instead of his heart. Or did he?
After much debate – and faced with a 2-1 deficit entering the final day – Noah inserted Lucas Pouille into France’s line-up in place of Jeremy Chardy for Sunday’s do-or-die fourth rubber against Marin Cilic, Croatia’s most celebrated Davis Cup player, at the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas Final in Lille.
Could Pouille, who won France the 2017 Davis Cup title, send this year’s final into a deciding rubber and give the French a chance to successfully defend and – maybe – win their 11th championship? With a last-minute line-up change, was there a likelihood of a Sunday miracle in red, white and blue? Unfortunately for Les Bleus, the answer would be no.
“It’s my job to try to visualize a positive outcome,” Noah was quoted by the Davis Cup website as saying on Saturday night. “We think about this very difficult task, a mountain that we have playing two great players. The atmosphere will be crazy. We have to stick close to them and then you never know.”
As it happened, Cilic, who hasn’t always been able to produce big wins in past Davis Cup competitions for Croatia, did just that – he produced a very big win. Now, Cilic and the rest of his Croatian teammates will return home to Croatia as world champions, winners of the 2018 Davis Cup Final title, following their 3-1 victory over France at Stade Pierre Mauroy.
On Sunday, the 30-year-old Cilic was cool and in control throughout much of his two hour and 19 minute rubber against Pouille on the indoor red clay. He played solidly and won easily, 7-6 (3), 6-3, 6-3. Cilic’s victory helped Croatia win its second Davis Cup title – and first since 2005 – in just its third Davis Cup Final.
— Davis Cup (@DavisCup) 25. November 2018
“It’s not every day that you become a world champion,” said Cilic, during a post-match interview on court while draped in a Croatian national flag. “For us, it’s a dream come true, for this nation, we are so passionate. You can see the fans, they are enjoying themselves, and I feel that in Croatia, it’s going to be incredible, too.”
The 24-year-old Pouille, who was France’s highest-ranked player on its roster for the Final, had been disappointing at times during the 2018 season, dropping from No. 18 to No. 32 in the ATP rankings. He was benched during Friday’s singles rubbers in favor of Chardy and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. However, to his credit, he had won all three of his previous Davis Cup rubbers this year – with wins over Fabio Fognini and Andreas Seppi in a quarterfinal tie victory over Italy and a five-set win against Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain in the semifinals. His 7-3 win-loss record in the competition overall favored him over Chardy, who lost to Cilic in 2017 on clay in their most recent encounter and was ineffective in losing to Borna Coric in Friday’s opening rubber.
Meanwhile, the steady and strong Cilic, ranked No. 7 in the world, came into his fourth rubber ready to do battle. His in-form performance against Tsonga on Friday garnered him his 28th career Davis Cup win and gave Croatia a commanding 2-0 advantage. In their only previous meeting, which came in the 2016 Davis Cup semifinals, Cilic beat Pouille, 6-1, 7-6, 2-6, 6-2. So, everything pointed favorably toward the 6-foot-6-inch (1.98 m) Cilic.
It’s been said that tennis is tennis, no matter the surface – and this year, France chose to play the 2018 Final on indoor clay instead of a hard court like it did a year ago. Regardless, one has to control their emotions and control their environment. Pouille, who played the hero in France’s 3-2 victory over Belgium last year in which he held his nerve to win the deciding fifth rubber, knew he needed to get off to a good start against Cilic while staying focused and ready.
On serve through the first nine games of the 56-minute opening set, Pouille stood his ground on the red clay surface. Cilic’s second of his seven service aces evened it at 5-all. Although he lacked consistency with placing his first serve in play (just 41 percent efficiency during the set), Cilic won 13 of 14 first-serve points. Neither he or Pouille were able to break the other’s serve. So, the first set went to a tie-break. It was won by Cilic 7-3, who captured the final four points, including a break on set point.
Cilic asserted himself in the second set, breaking Pouille to go ahead 4-2. Then, Pouille fought off four set points in holding in the eighth game, winning with his seventh service ace. It brought the noisy crowd inside Stade Pierre Mauroy to its feet momentarily. However, Cilic gained his fifth set point on a forced error by Pouille, and put it away with a well-executed, five-shot rally. His 12th forehand winner capped the 6-3 set after 43 minutes.
With Croatia just one set away from winning its second Davis Cup title, Cilic broke Pouille in the fifth game to go ahead 3-2, after the French hit his 43rd unforced error with a back-handed return that sailed long. Pouille had saved one break point with his ninth ace, but it wasn’t enough. Cilic maintained his steady demeanor as he consolidated the break in his next service game by hitting his 14th forehand winner – and 17th winner overall – to take a commanding 4-2 lead with the finish line coming into sight.
Then, Cilic hit another solid forehand winner in his next service game for a 5-3 third-set advantage. Soon, he leveraged three straight unforced errors from Pouille’s backhand to gain championship point. Although Pouille’s 10th service ace held off the inevitable final result for just a moment while chair umpire Marijana Veljovic silenced the crowd – and he erased a second match point when Cilic netted an easy return for his 29th unforced error – on the next point, Cilic lofted a brilliant forehand winner over the head of Pouille that shut the door on the set, 6-3, and on France, too.
That moment when you win the #DavisCup
— Davis Cup (@DavisCup) 25. November 2018
Suddenly but not surprising, it was celebration time for Croatia. With championship point secured, Cilic raised his arms in victory. Soon, he was wildly embraced by team captain Zeljko Krajan and his Croatian teammates as a festive celebration broke out near the center of the court. Mate Pavic draped a Croatian flag around the hero Cilic’s shoulders. After a brief stand down, everyone returned for the joyous trophy presentation and the playing of the Croatian national anthem, “Lijepa naša domovino” (“Our Beautiful Homeland”), followed by Champagne celebrations.
Soon after Croatia’s victory, congratulations came pouring in via social media for the victors. Longtime United States Davis Cup member Bob Bryan tweeted, “Contrats to Croatia on the @DavisCup victory. I’m always impressed with the humility that @cilic_marin shows in victory and in defeat.”
Paul Annacone, a former United States Davis Cup player, who commented on the Davis Cup Final for the Tennis Channel broadcast in the U.S., said, “Cilic was able to stay mentally tough and close out the tie. He worked so hard and improved, wanting to get better. Today, it was all for a worthy cause.”
Looking back on the 106th Davis Cup Final, the last of its kind final before the Davis Cup revamps its format next year, it was an amazing weekend for both Cilic (with two singles victories) and the Croatians. They played clear and relentless tennis. In three singles rubbers, Cilic and Coric never had their service broken. While France’s Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert kept the French hopes alive with a resilient performance in the doubles rubber on Saturday, following a pair of disappointing singles losses on Friday, in the end, Pouille proved no match for Cilic. Once again, just like it did 13 years ago, it’s Croatia which stands tall as champions of the world’s largest annual international team competition in sports.
Davis Cup notes
• With Croatia’s Davis Cup Final title victory, it marked the fifth time in the last six Davis Cup Finals that the away team had won the title.
• Stade Pierre Mauroy has hosted three Davis Cup Finals. Before this year, it was the site of the 2014 Finals, won by Switzerland 3-1 over France, and last year, it was the site of France’s 3-2 victory over Belgium. Like this year, the 2014 Final was played on an indoor clay court. In 2017, it was played on an indoor hard court. Stade Pierre Mauroy is the 13th stadium to host three or more Davis Cup Finals.
• Another large crowd (24,144) filled Stade Pierre Mauroy on Sunday for the final day of the Davis Cup Final, many sporting the tri-colors of France and waving French flags. On Friday, the attendance for the first two singles rubbers was 19,444. Saturday’s doubles rubber drew 22,910. Among those in attendance on Sunday was Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, who sat courside near the Croatia team bench.