Marin Čilić emulated Roger Federer as he secured the winning point for Croatia to triumph in the 2018 Davis Cup – 4 years after the Swiss superstar had performed the identical feat on the same indoor clay court at the Stade Pierre Mauroy in Lille, with France once again being beaten 3-1 in a home final.
Čilić defeated Lucas Pouille 7-6(3) 6-3 6-3 to give Croatia an unassailable lead over the French, with a performance of remarkable calmness despite the pressure exerted by playing in front of a hugely passionate crowd of 24,144, the vast majority of whom were vociferously backing France.
And Croatia’s leading player also had to cope with the additional anxiety of trying to make up for his previous appearance in the final, in 2016, when he suffered the extreme disappointment of allowing victory to slip away from within his grasp in Zagreb, against Argentina and Juan Martín del Potro.
Čilić has since then been seeking the chance to banish his persistent feeling of having let down the Croatian supporters two years ago, after taking a 2-set lead over del Potro and getting within reach of claiming the point that would win the final, only to falter and lose, with the Argentinians subsequently triumphing 3-2.
His response this time was superb. In both his two singles matches in Lille, Čilić did not just avoid losing a set. His serve was not broken even once. Indeed, against Pouille, he did not face a solitary break point, and only in one service game was he taken to deuce, such was the dominance of his powerful serving, on a court surface which should not have been suited to it.
In a contest between the two highest-ranked singles players on each side, Pouille actually stretched Čilić repeatedly, producing several mesmeric exchanges, with the Frenchman bringing the local supporters to their feet by his particularly effective use of the drop shot. For most of the encounter it seemed a match worthy of a Davis Cup final.
But Čilić is very much established among the world’s top 10, with his current position on the ATP list of 7 being significantly superior to that of Pouille at 32. It showed at key moments, especially in the first set tie-break, which essentially turned on a single point. Ultimately, it may well have decided the outcome of the whole match, plus therefore the destiny of the Cup itself.
Once Čilić had the advantage of a lead there was only occasional evidence of understandable nervousness, before he completed victory with a perfectly-executed lob. In 2 hours 19 minutes on court, he claimed the Davis Cup for the first time – and gave Croatia only its second success in the 118-year-old competition, to follow the win in 2005.
Čilić has now overtaken the Croatian heroes from 13 years ago, Goran Ivanišević and Mario Ančić, as he extended his national record for the most Davis Cup matches won to 39. Not even the French efforts to stage the 2018 final on a clay court to counteract his threat proved sufficient to stop him.
In fact, the Lille success was Croatia’s 8th consecutive win in this competition on clay, while handing France its first loss on this surface since the 2014 final. That defeat by Switzerland four years ago was also the last time the French had failed to win a home tie in the Davis Cup. But then the final has been dominated recently by away teams.
Including the Croatian triumph this year, and the Swiss win in 2014, no fewer than five of the last six Davis Cup finals have gone to the visiting nation, the only exception being France’s victory over Belgium last year in Lille. Defeats for the home side can dampen the sense of occasion at finals, but that certainly did not happen this time.
Throughout the weekend, the French were determined to make the 107th and last Davis Cup final a celebration of tennis’s greatest team event. A total of 66,498 fans came to the Stade Pierre Mauroy over the three days. They did not quite equal the world record for a competitive tennis match of 27,448 to see Federer in the 2014 final, but it was close.
And when it was over, France’s non-playing captain, Yannick Noah spoke. Three times a winner of the Davis Cup, in 1991, 1996 and 2017, he confirmed his retirement from further professional involvement in the sport. But he preferred to focus not on his leaving tennis, but rather on the loss of a competition that is incredibly precious to him and many others.
He was speaking for himself and also his players. Including Nicolas Mahut, who on the court at the end confronted ITF President, David Haggerty, about discontinuing the Davis Cup in its traditional format. Plus Pouille, who got the winning point last year and was beaten for the winning point this time, after which he reiterated his refusal to play in any diluted new version. Noah’s words had a resonance for them and beyond the team too.
“It will never be the same. It will not have all this. 25,000 people in a stadium showing their passion for it. Whatever it is in the future, it won’t be the Davis Cup. First to two sets is not Davis Cup. No home and away is not Davis Cup. I hope they do not call this [new event] the Davis Cup. Because it is not the Davis Cup.”
An unwanted eulogy but a fitting one.